Welcome to TCR's 2016 Illinois Football preview! Rather than type up 22,000 words on the team, our staff collaborated to form a special preseason roundtable discussion to address a few important storylines. Topics are presented in over/under format, with each writer providing some sort of reasoning for their predictions. Enjoy!
1. Last season, Wes Lunt completed 56.1% of his passes. Arguably, this could have been higher given the number of dropped passes the receiving corps had. This season, Wes Lunt will have (over/under) a 60% completion percentage.
Thumpasaurus: Over. Wes led the Big Ten in attempts last year by a large margin and I don’t expect us to throw quite as much this year. With the offense being less predictable, at least early before there’s a lot of tape, Wes in a clean pocket should be able to be an efficient passer. At the very least, I don’t expect as many of those three-and-outs that kill less than ten seconds.
Jabs: Over. I honestly think Lunt will complete close to 67% of his passes this season. As a senior, Lunt will be making smarter plays, and with this coaching staff, there will be smarter plays called. I think the offensive line should be able to keep the golden arm upright, give him time in the pocket, and propel him to top quarterback in the Big Ten West. The only way I will be wrong is if we see a repeat of last years dropsies.
Vallese: Over. Lunt’s a senior this season; it’s his last go-around. Not only are Wes’s numbers from 2015 bound to improve, but there’s no way the receivers drop that many passes again. It’s a new (better) offensive system under McGee that allows less pressure to be squarely on Lunt’s shoulders with the run game getting more opportunities too. Lunt will be one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten, and I’ll say he finishes with a 65% completion percentage.
Sill: Under. I expect an improved Lunt, but getting the number over 60% could still be a challenge. For one, there’s no guarantee Lunt’s receivers are better. It’s easy to forget that Lunt is a quarterback who lost his best target, but Geronimo Allison is still fighting for a spot in Packers camp. Another new offense could lead to some confusion, and Illinois is still a team bound to be in many situations wherein it needs to pass and its opponent knows it. The percentage may go up, but if it’s over 60, consider me surprised.
Smith: Over. The receivers are more experienced this year, and Wes Lunt will be throwing the ball less under Garrick McGee’s new system. Lunt will flourish in his senior season (as long as he stays upright), and having a veteran offensive line, an improved Ke’Shawn Vaughn, and a new offensive coordinator, Lunt will complete over 60% of his passes this season.
Vainisi: Under. Wes Lunt will hopefully benefit from better play calling this season, but that doesn’t change the fact that his receivers had 60+ drops last season. The unit lost their best player (Geronimo Allison) and, until I actually see it happen, I refuse to believe that an extra offseason of ‘experience’ will simply erase those struggles. But Malik Turner should be good, so Illinois has that going for them.
Bourbon: Way over. He was at 61.8 percent as a freshman at Oklahoma State and 63.5 percent as a sophomore. The drops simply cannot be as bad as last year, which will help, but so will the change in coaching. Lunt aired it out 481 times last season (an average of 40 attempts per game). That number will drop significantly because Illinois will be much more focused on running the ball in 2016, allowing Lunt and the passing game to be more efficient.
Primiano: Under, but not by much. I already trust McGee’s offense far more than Bill Cubit’s "3rd & 14 swing pass special", but that alone isn’t going to magically make for a higher completion rate. The receivers can’t drop balls with the same stunning frequency as last year, but Allison and Ferguson are gone and Dudek still isn’t back, so I don’t see the completion rate getting quite back to where it was.
Repplinger: I’ll take the under as well. While I do see the potential for improvement from last season, Wes will miss having Geronimo Allison as a target.
2. Ke’Shawn Vaughn finished last season with 723 rushing yards, and 119 receiving yards (842 all purpose). This season, he will finish with (over/under) 1,500 all purpose yards.
Thumpasaurus: Under. It might be close, and Vaughn will be a key part of this offense, but with so many good run-stopping teams on our schedule, Vaughn might not be able to break free very many times.
Jabs: Under. I believe the last Illinois player to break 1,500 all purpose yards in a season is Mikel Leshoure. I think Vaughn has an immense wealth of talent, but I do not think he is there quite yet. I do, however, expect him to hit that plateau before his career is over at Illinois.
Vallese: Under. The primary reason being that this is the Big Ten, which has some really good defensive lines and secondaries. It won’t be that easy for Vaughn to break out huge runs. His longest touchdown run of 2015 came against Purdue, for example. Vaughn will be reliable and consistent but I don’t think he’ll be other-worldly -- yet.
Sill: Over. It’s hard to say how much credit he deserves, but Lovie Smith doesn’t get any credit for having been a haven for running backs. Guys like Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson really struggled upon leaving Smith’s teams, and Matt Forte thrived under him, and Doug Martin came back from the dead when Lovie came to Tampa. Something about his offensive philosophy puts running backs in a position to succeed. The over/under here is a bit lofty, but an improved offensive line and a capable back could combine for a heck of a season.
Smith: Over. With no Ferguson in the backfield, Vaughn will handle all responsibilities in the backfield, and considering that he got more than halfway there last year, he should be able to get there with an increased workload. Defenses will key on him, but I trust Garrick McGee (especially over Ryan Cubit) to find holes for Ke’Shawn and the offense on a week-to-week basis.
Vainisi: Over. I mean, I had no idea that Vaughn had 720 yards on the ground last season -- that’s pretty fantastic for a true-freshman backup. This time around I feel like Vaughn is going to get, like, 98% of the carries this year so 1,200+ rushing yards isn’t completely out of the question. He shouldn’t have a problem closing that gap with receiving yards if that does indeed happen.
Bourbon: I’ll say under, but not by much. I think Vaughn is definitely going to rush for more than 1,000 yards this year as the feature back, however, I don’t see him getting much of an increase in receiving yards from 2015. That’ll be the job of guys like Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin, who will act as pass catchers out of the backfield. In slightly more blunt terms, I think it will be hard to establish the running game when you’re losing, and Illinois is going to be down in a lot of games this year.
Primiano: Under. Cracking 1,500 yards from scrimmage would have made Vaughn a top 30 guy in all of football last season. I think Vaughn will be a good RB and maybe eventually a great one, but I don’t see it happening this fall.
Repplinger: Given that we’re talking all purpose yards, I’m taking the over. Ke’Shawn has already been praised highly by Gerrick McGee and Lovie Smith as an offensive weapon, and it’s clear the coaching staff has their trust in his playmaking ability. I also think he’s going to be a popular check-down target for Wes Lunt this season.
3. Geronimo Allison finished last season with 882 yards as the leading receiver for the Illini. Malik Turner was the next most popular with 510 yards. With Malik assuming the lead receiver role this season, he will finish with (over/under) 800 yards this season.
Jabs: Under. I honestly don’t think anyone on this receiving corps will hit 800 yards. Lunt will spread the ball around a bit more, I think they will run the ball more this season than in the past, and I believe there will be a lot of tight end / running back completions.
Vallese: Under. I would be extremely surprised (and pleased) if Turner hits anything close to 800 yards this year. That’s not necessarily a knock on Malik, but the Illini have several wideouts that will be question marks heading into this season (Can Cain improve? Will Hardee be productive? Can Dudek return?). I’m hesitant to say any of them will reach the 800 yard plateau.
Sill: Under. I want to say over, but that requires an unforeseen step from Turner this year. I don’t think that’s necessarily damning for the passing game, though. With a number of viable targets emerging, you might not need a 1,000-yard receiver in the bunch to be effective.
Smith: Under. Lunt will spread the ball around to all of his wide receivers--I don’t see a dominant #1 guy like in years past (Allison, Dudek most recently), and I’ll go ahead and say Malik Turner will finish with the most yards (Des Cain will have more catches, though), but it won’t be 800 yards.
Vainisi: Under, and I’m not sure there’s anything Malik Turner can do about that to be honest. Wes Lunt may not have the most talented receiving corps at his disposal, but strangely enough that ‘corps’ is actually comprised of 52 players. The ball will be spread around often, resulting in fewer opportunities for Turner.
Bourbon: Under. Once again, the Illini will be throwing less than last year, and I think we’ll see an even bigger impact from tight ends and running backs in the aerial attack this year. More options means more spreading the ball around, and that means less yards for your number one guy. I certainly think Turner is talented enough, but I don’t see him reaching that plateau this year.
Primiano: Under. In McGee’s two years at Louisville, only one receiver had more than 800 receiving yards at the end of a season and that was DeVante Parker in 2014 (855 in 6 games!). Turner isn’t DeVante Parker. He’s a good receiver, but he’s not a main weapon kind of guy.
Repplinger: Under. Sam Mays could be this season’s Geronimo Allison given his nearly identical frame, and I believe Wes will be spreading the ball around in the air attack.
4. The Illinois secondary intercepted 13 passes last season. With Hardy Nickerson coaching the defense with a Tampa 2 scheme, that interception total will jump to (over/under) 15.5 this season.
Jabs: Over. The defense is one of the bright spots on this team. They may lack depth at certain positions, but what we do have is talent. The defensive line will disrupt opposing quarterbacks enough that mistakes will be made. I expect to have at least seven interceptions in the first three games, meaning Illinois will need nine more in their final nine games to hit the over. Give me the over and I’m not looking back.
Thumpasaurus: Under. We got a lot of turnovers in two very easy games to start last year, and I don’t see that repeating itself. The secondary loses some experience, and while I believe in Hardy Nickerson as a coach, I’ll believe an Illini defense that intercepts passes when I see it. I’ve finally quit celebrating every time we don’t muff a punt, but an Illinois pick is like an inside-the-park home run for me.
Vallese: Over. We’ve heard a lot from training camp about how the emphasis for this defense is takeaways. Hell, Charles Tillman came to town to talk to the team about "peanut punching." Lovie Smith’s Bears teams ranked 2nd, 2nd, 7th, 3rd, 12th, 5th, and 1st in interceptions during his last seven seasons at the helm in Chicago. Turnovers are not something Illinois fans are used to seeing, but they better get used to them with Smith and Nickerson leading the defense.
Sill: Over. This will be an interesting test of longstanding football principles. The strength of the defense is up front, but the turnovers are usually made by the guys on the back end. If pressure on the quarterback can lead to more turnovers, Illinois could be in good shape. Also, it sounds asinine to say the defense will get turnovers now simply because Lovie Smith waltzes in and says "Guys, get some turnovers." But we’ll see how effective Lovie’s defensive turnover-creating techniques are.
Smith: Under. 15 seems like a pretty high mark, but not completely unachievable. With the loss of Fej, Vanjo, and Eaton Spence in the secondary, I don’t see it happening, but ask me after we intercept UNC four times in a 27-21 win.
Vainisi: Under? As Eliot mentioned, Illinois’ dominant defensive line should pressure quarterbacks into making more mistakes. So in that regard I suppose 16 interceptions will always be possible. But everyone on the field will be playing in a new scheme, and I think that’s going to take some time to get used to. Plus, asking for anything more than one per game seems a bit crazy given the team’s recent history.
Bourbon: Over. While last year’s team lost both starting corners in V’Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence, I think Illinois is well-prepared to fill in with Jaylen Dunlap (who is going to be an absolute stud this year, IMO) and Darius Mosely. That pass rush is going to be fierce, which will make the secondary’s job a lot easier to get the ball back.
Primiano: Under. The defensive line should be able to wreak all sorts of havok and Lovie Smith teams are turnover machines, but 16 interceptions in a season is a pretty huge jump forward. That would put the Illini squarely in the top 20-30 range in all of football which I just don’t see happening in year one.
Repplinger: Barely under. Having a strong defensive line will limit the amount of time opposing QB’s have to make their reads, but we will miss Bentley/Spence/Fej.
5. Special Teams was a bit shaky last season, with a Field Goal percentage of 64%. This year, they will finish (over/under) 69.5%.
Thumpasaurus: Over, only because last year’s offense had a nasty habit of stalling right on the opponent’s 30. If our average FG length gets a little shorter, we ought to make more. I might have a lot invested in the offense being more effective than last year. I hope I’m not made to pay for this faith.
Jabs: Over...please be over. Last year, The Cube’z made some questionable choices to kick as opposed to going for the first down. With a staff that will likely make better decisions, say good bye to the 45 yard attempts. The number goes up, simply because we are doing dumb things.
Vallese: I hope to god it’s over. On field goals of more than 40 yards last season, Zalewski was 6-14. That’s not going to cut it. He did manage to improve his FG percentage by fourteen points last year, but that’s not saying much (in 2014 he hit just 50%). Chase McLaughlin is a sophomore out of Texas who was rated as one of the best high school kickers in the state. Hopefully his presence will allow this number to rise to a much more reasonable percentage, somewhere around 75.
Sill: Who knows, but over. Why not us? Why can’t we kick field goals?
Smith: Over. Chase McLaughlin is the new kicker, which means he has to be better than our other options, right? Right?!
Vainisi: Over. Please don’t be bad, Chase McLaughlin.
Bourbon: WOOF. I don’t know, probably under as depressing as that sounds. Like if Chase McLaughlin was good, wouldn’t he have played last year? The kicking game might be ugly again this year.
Primiano: Over, simply by the grace of Lovie not going for nearly as many absurdly long field goals as Cubit.
Repplinger: Over, simply because Chase McLaughlin’s twitter videos instill WAVES of confidence in me.
6. Attendance last season saw an average of 42,647 people attend football games in Memorial Stadium. This year’s average will be (over/under) 47,000 per game (about 10% increase from last year).
Thumpasaurus: Over. Following a season where apathy for Fighting Illini football was at nearly a 20-year low due to the interim/lost season drama, we’ve done one of the most exciting coaching changes of any team in the country. So many fans in so many parts of the Internet have declared that they’re not coming back to the stadium until Tim Beckman is gone, Mike Thomas is gone, and Illinois decides to pony up and hire a real football coach. Well, time to put your money where your mouth is. There’s gonna be some excitement all year even if the team doesn’t produce many wins yet. Nobody will be embarrassed to be seen there.
Jabs: Over. The excitement is there and people are genuinely interested for what is going on in Champaign this season. People care again, and people have been buying tickets like crazy. It will be electric at most home matchups this season, and I can’t wait.
Vallese: Over. The ticket office reported thousands of new season ticket holders once the Smith hiring was officially announced back in March. I have a feeling the crowds will be bigger and more energetic this season, and I can’t wait to witness it in person.
Sill: Over. The Lovie effect. Not only are more alumni satisfied, and recruits interested, but fans are more entertained to watch a Lovie Smith coached team.
Smith: Over. What Sill said. If we beat North Carolina in week 2 (what I expect to the be the biggest crowd since Arizona State in 2011), attendance should be better than it ever was in the Beckman/Cubit era.
Vainisi: Over, and I think we’ll see at least two sellouts.
Bourbon: Over, thank God. Underrated part of the schedule is the lack of 11 am games. Murray State is at 2:30, UNC is a night game (should be a sellout), Western Michigan is at 3. That will significantly help student attendance, which will do wonders for the ‘atmosphere’ of the stadium -- an area that has been nearly nonexistent in recent years.
Primiano: Over. Illinois is finally making efforts towards increasing attendance beyond just putting up billboards in Chicagoland. Attendance hit its nadir last season, and very understandably so. Even though I’m not expecting a winning season this fall, there’s at least excitement around the program and the school seems to have finally realized that giving students some free tickets is better than having an empty stadium.
Repplinger: I’ll be that guy...under. If you consider that last season we had arguably 2 of the better traveling fan bases in college football in Memorial Stadium (Ohio State & Nebraska), our attendance figures were boosted by those games. Our last season with an average over 47,000 was in 2011. This season’s attendance will increase from last year no doubt, but I don’t think we hit the 47k mark quite yet (would LOVE to be wrong).
7. In 2011, the Marching Illini was controversially flagged during the Western Michigan game for "distracting the offense". Since then, they have not committed a penalty. This season, the band will have (over/under) 0.5 penalties in this year’s matchup with the Broncos.
Thumpasaurus: Over. I have a feeling that game will be infuriating to watch and bizarre things will hamper our boys all day.
Jabs: Under. I completely forgot about that flag, so I am hoping that I don’t have to relive it. Then again, it is only a five yard penalty, and it makes me laugh.
Vallese: Under. If the Marching Illini have anything but a positive impact on the team this season, something has gone horribly wrong.
Sill: Under. And I bet we hit the under on chewing tobacco sideline violations.
Smith: Felt like it was an Ohio State game too, no? Lovie will control the band against the Fighting Flecks.
Vainisi: Over. I’m personally going to sneak over to the band section and throw a damn Tuba into the endzone.
Bourbon: I’ll go over just because I want to see this happen. What does Barry Houser have up his sleeve this year??
Repplinger: Over. WAR CHANT TILL THEIR HEADS EXPLODE.
8. Illinois finished the season with 5 wins in 2015. This year, they will finish with (over/under) 5.5 wins.
Jabs: Over. Just let me have a hopeful season this year that I will get to see Illinois in a bowl game. That is all I want. That and the 2019 Big Ten Championship.
Vallese: Over. The Illini have the 35th-toughest schedule in the nation according to Phil Steele. The back end of that Big Ten schedule is rough, so a fast start will be key if Illinois wants to go bowling this December. I predicted a 6-6 finish with a small bowl berth in my preview post earlier this summer, so I’ll stick to that here.
Sill: Over. What is the offseason for if not to pick the over over and over? Dream big! Six wins! I think, seriously, that you have to understand that teams take it one game at a time, and try to win no matter who they’re playing. They don’t see those automatic losses quite like we do. And with Lovie at the helm, there’s that much more reason for optimism week in and week out. He doesn’t magically solve longstanding problems the program has had, but he shifts the percentages on several fronts, and gives the Illini a chance to be better than they deserve.
Smith: Over. I feel a lot more confident about this pick than my six wins prediction last year for one reason: Lovie Smith. That and the fact that this defense is possibly the most underrated in the Big Ten. Like I’ve been saying beat UNC, and we’re talking 8 wins possibly. My expectations hinge on that game. Even if they don’t win that one, a fast start would really help, rolling into the Big House at 5-1 would be fun. Lovie vs. Harburgh. 5-1 Illinois vs. 6-0 Michigan. ABC. Gameday #theLovieEffect. As, Sill said, dream big.
Vainisi: Under. I think Illinois has way too many holes in the depth chart. I mean, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this team is two or three non-Wes Lunt injuries away from disaster. Even if the football gods bless the program with good health for the next three months, the margin for error with this group of players has been non-existent every single week for the past three years. But for now let’s assume that won’t be a problem this Fall -- I’m still not quite sure where wins 4-6 are going to come from.
Bourbon: Under. I think they’re a 4-8 team, maybe 5-7 if things break right. Even though Lovie and his staff are a huge upgrade coaching-wise over Beckman and Cubit, these are still players that the former regime recruited. Especially with a tough non-conference schedule (don’t be surprised if the Western Michigan game is an absolute dogfight) I don’t see the Illini making a bowl game in 2016.
Primiano: The most optimistic I can get about this year’s team is 6-6, and that’s me going pie in the sky. The depth just isn’t there. The receiving corps is thin. It’s another new coaching staff. And the schedule is painfully unforgiving. I’m seeing 4-5 wins, but with promise of a better tomorrow.
Repplinger: Under. We’re heading in the right direction...you’ve just gotta start somewhere.