With July rolling right along, you can take solace in knowing this is the last month with zero college football. Offseason training is in full swing, and before you know it, Fall training camp will be wrapping up as the first Saturday of the season draws near. The Fighting Illini are almost back.
As fans, we all want to win now. You’ll examine the schedule and think to yourself that if a few things go Illinois’ way, it is ENTIRELY POSSIBLE to play in a New Year’s Six Bowl. That is the curse of being a fan.
The real question, however, is what are the reasonable expectations for the Illini under Lovie Smith’s guidance in Year Two? Will there be a stronger defense despite the pieces that were lost to graduation and the NFL Draft? Will the offense gel with some new and returning faces? How will Mikey Dudek fare after missing the past two seasons? There are a bevy of questions surrounding this team in 2017.
When you look at the schedule for this upcoming season, there are some tough games (Nebraska, at Iowa, at Ohio State) and there are a few likely wins (Ball State, Rutgers). So any amount of success on the year should stem from the seven remaining games.
Week 2 features a not-so-easy matchup with a Western Kentucky team that will give the Illini all they can handle on offense. The Hilltoppers may have lost former coach Jeff Brohm to Purdue, but even so they’re certainly not the typical non-conference ‘win by five touchdowns’ home game.
The Orange and Blue will also have a Friday night road game against a soon-to-be-ranked South Florida program. Like Western Kentucky, though, Illinois may have caught a scheduling break thanks to yet another coaching change (the Bulls hired Charlie Strong).
Assuming Illinois can at least split those tests, they should enter Big Ten season with a 2-1 record. Bowl eligibility would still be very much on the table given the annual status of the West Division.
The late October to early November stretch features games at Minnesota, hosting Wisconsin, at Purdue, and hosting Indiana; this will make or break Lovie Smith’s squad. The goal here is to go either 2-2 or 3-1, keeping in mind that three of those teams have — you guessed it — new head coaches.
Now what about the actual personnel on the field?
Things will look a lot different offensively thanks to Chayce Crouch, that’s for sure.
Illini fans saw glimpses of the future midway through the second quarter against Purdue last year, after Lunt injured his back and left the game on a late hit from Boilermaker linebacker Danny Ezechukwu.
In just over two quarters of play, Crouch was 10-for-14 passing for 142 yards to go along with 17 carries for 137 yards and two scores. He used his bulldozing style of running (with his 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame) to become Illinois' diet-diet-diet version of Tim Tebow for one afternoon in October.
The return of Mike Dudek raises a bevy of questions, too. Will he return to his 2014 form? That player was on pace to become one of the best receivers Illinois has ever seen. If the speedy playmaker can navigate through his two devastating knee injuries and give any sort of a boost, that may alleviate some of the concerns regarding the passing game.
On the other side, there were huge pieces of a surprisingly decent unit lost due to graduation and the draft. One piece that remains, however, and is my early pick for Defensive MVP in sophomore Stanley Green. Green plays the safety position so well and showed some brilliant flashes of immense talent in 2016. Watch for him to clog up the passing game for opponents and potentially take another step towards becoming one of the better defenders in the conference.
The concern here will be the defensive front, which will feature a lot of young, unproven, and inexperienced talent that will be asked to keep opponents in check. ‘Veterans’ in the front seven like James Crawford, Tre Watson, and DelShawn Phillips (a JUCO transfer) have to be vocal leaders and lead the way for a wave of underclassmen.
All in all, there seems to be a large number of question marks for Illinois in 2017. We’re probably looking at a 3-4 win year, but it’s worth keeping in mind that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Trust the process, trust the coaching staff, and let’s enjoy the ride back to what’s hopefully a respectable place in the Big Ten.