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Analyzing the 2017 Illinois football schedule

The Illini have their sights set on a bowl game in their second season under Lovie Smith, but the schedule does them no favors.

Trevor Vallese

This will be my fourth year breaking down the Illinois football schedule for TCR. In 2014, I went a perfect 12-for-12 and accurately predicted the team’s 6-6 record. I was more optimistic in 2015 when I called for a 7-5 record, and it looked like I was sitting pretty when the team started 4-1. Unfortunately they went 1-6 down the stretch, and my seven-win prediction was off. Last season I once again over-estimated the team’s win total by two games, projecting a 5-7 record and watching them finish 3-9. I don’t think I’ll be faulted for a glass-half-full approach this time around, however.

Before I dig too deep into the 2017 schedule, I’d like to make one thing clear: this year’s team definitely possesses some interesting weapons on offense and some younger unknowns on defense. There’s always the possibility of a surprisingly-successful season out of nowhere. Illinois football has been especially good at that historically speaking. However, I think several factors, of which I will go into further detail about below, are going to prevent this year’s team from finishing anywhere near bowl contention. Let’s first take a look at how their 2017 schedule ranks nationally compared to last year’s:

Schedule Difficulty in 2016: 18th in country, 4th in Big Ten

Schedule Difficulty in 2017: 33rd in country, 3rd in Big Ten

This schedule will be less difficult than last season’s, mostly thanks to the Illini avoiding Penn State and Michigan in cross-divisional play, but it’s still in the top-third of the country and the Big Ten in difficulty. Which brings me to this...

My Projected Record: 2-10 (1-8 in B1G)

Yikes. Let’s take this game-by-game so I can explain myself before the diehards chase me down with flaming pitchforks. One thing I like to do when analyzing a team’s schedule is break it down into portions. I’ll be splitting the Illinois schedule into four different “pieces” to gain a better understanding of which games are most crucial and which stretches will be the toughest. Without further ado, let’s get into it!

(Author’s note: Each Illini opponent listed below is followed by a “TCR composite ranking,” which uses a combination of sources like ESPN’s FPI and Phil Steele’s team power ratings to gain a condensed idea of how each opponent is expected to perform this year. Rankings are out of 130 teams.)

Season One ("Get Some Wins”; Projected record: 1-1)

  1. vs. Ball State (112th)... This is the only portion of the schedule where an Illini sweep seems feasible. Ball State is far and away the weakest opponent Lovie’s team will face this year, and this should be a fairly easy victory. The Cardinals boast a strong running game anchored by junior James Gilbert, whom head coach Mike Neu called “the best back in the MAC.” With eight starters returning on the that side of the ball, including QB Riley Neal, Ball State should score a decent amount of points. The defense appears to be this team’s biggest weakness , as they return just four starters from a unit that gave up nearly 400 passing yards per game last season. This matchup should serve as a good tune-up for the remainder of 2017 for the Illini, and should be a fairly stress-free WIN out of the gates.
  2. vs. Western Kentucky (59th)... The Hilltoppers will visit Champaign for the second time in three seasons, after the Illini handed them a close 42-34 loss back in 2014. WKU lost head coach Jeff Brohm to Purdue in the offseason, but still project to be one of the best teams in the C-USA this year. Senior quarterback Mike White led the nation in QBR for the first three weeks of the 2016 season, but will look to develop more consistency with those numbers this year. They have six starters back on the defensive side of the ball and should at least match last season’s numbers (allowed 24 points per game). Phil Steele is calling for WKU to go 11-1 and win the C-USA, which makes them one of the strongest non-power five opponents out there. The Hilltoppers possess the offensive firepower to spring some upsets, and I think this will be one of them. Much to the disappointment of a big Saturday night crowd, the Illini will suffer a close home LOSS to a high-octane Western Kentucky team.

Season Two ("Make or Break"; Projected record: 0-3)

  1. @ South Florida (41st)... The second of three straight primetime games, this trip to Tampa could get ugly for the orange and blue. This will be the first “big” game for the Bulls under new head coach Charlie Strong, who was handed a very good roster for his first year in charge. USF projects to be one of the best non-power five teams in the country in 2017, in large part due to Heisman candidate QB Quinton Flowers. The Flowers-led USF offense broke all kinds of school records last season en route to an 11-2 record. Phil Steele projects them to go 12-0 and reach a New Year’s Day bowl game in 2017. Illinois has lost 14 of their last 15 road season openers, and by an average of 18 points. Cover your eyes, Illini fans. This one will be another early season LOSS, and it probably won’t even be close.
  2. vs. Nebraska (49th)... There’s a reason why this three-game stretch is called “Make or Break.” It’s awfully early in the year to denote a matchup as a must-win, but if you glance up and down the remainder of the schedule I don’t think it’s unfair to call this the potential turning point of the season. The Huskers have had their struggles against the Illini in recent years, barely squeaking out a win in Lincoln last October and losing to Illinois two years ago in Champaign. But the Illini are just 3-20 in their last 23 Big Ten openers, and on paper it seems like the Cornhuskers should easily take this one. Given the primetime atmosphere in Illinois’ favor, I think it will be closer than some expect, especially considering that Mike Reilly’s team is in a bit of a transition period. They’re making a big switch on the defensive side of the ball to a 3-4 scheme and are also bringing in a pro-style offensive system under the leadership of transfer QB Tanner Lee. I’m picturing something similar to last year’s North Carolina game, with a possibly closer final score. That said, Nebraska is going to come away with the victory, leaving Illinois reeling after yet another early-season LOSS.
  3. @ Iowa (38th)... The last time Illinois traveled to Iowa City they almost sprang a comeback upset on the Hawkeyes. This time around I don’t expect it to be close. Kirk Ferentz’s squad will once again be led by their tough-nosed defense, which allowed just 17 points per game last year and return eight starters. They have the second-best defensive line in the Big Ten and the fifth-best secondary unit in the country according to Phil Steele. On offense the Hawkeyes lose QB C. J. Beathard, and probably won’t win the Big Ten West this year because of it, but I still expect them to be a strong 7-9 win team, as always. Illinois is 7-28 since 2008 on the road in the Big Ten, where they haven’t averaged more than one road win per year. If they’re only going to win one game away from Memorial Stadium this season, you can pretty much guarantee it won’t be this one. I predict a low-scoring LOSS to Iowa that sends the team into a four-game skid.

Season Three ("Toss-Up Matchups"; Projected record: 1-3)

  1. vs. Rutgers (96th)... If you’re keeping score at home I’ve got the Illini pegged for 1-4 up to this point in the season. The good news? Three out of the four games on this slate are winnable. It won’t be easy, especially considering that two of those toss-up matchups come on the road. But it’s not impossible to imagine the Illini beating Rutgers and/or Purdue and/or Minnesota. That starts with taking care of business at home against the Scarlet Knights, who are led by second-year head coach Chris Ash. They went just 2-10 last season, but with versatile star Janarion Grant returning from injury, they’re poised to be several touchdowns-per-game better in 2017. On defense, they return eight starters and will have nowhere to go but up statistically speaking. They’ll still be young and inexperienced, but Ash seems to have this program pointing in the right direction. Look for them to improve their record by a few games in 2017, although a bowl seems unlikely. Illinois is 2-1 all-time against Rutgers, and I think they’ll push it to 3-1 after a reassuring home WIN.
  2. @ Minnesota (65th)... P.J. Fleck rowed his boat all over the Illini last year in Champaign, so perhaps this will be a bit of a revenge game for Lovie and company. The Golden Gophers project to be a solid team but nothing more, as both ESPN and Phil Steele are calling for 6-6 records with a small bowl appearance. Gophers QB Mitch Leidner is gone, but they boast a young talented sophomore to replace him in Demry Croft. Some don’t think Fleck’s philosophies and recruiting styles have staying power, but this year could certainly be a year of contention for Minnesota, who have won two straight against the Illini and six of the last eight meetings. I think this game will be close but I’ll give the advantage to the home team as the Gophers make it three in a row against Illinois and hand the orange and blue their fifth overall LOSS.
  3. vs. Wisconsin (9th)... A date with the Badgers provides the toughest game on this slate. The Illini managed to keep it close against Wisconsin two years ago on homecoming, and will be looking to achieve something similar this time around. The Badgers return eight starters on the offensive side of the ball, and also add Pitt transfer running back Chris James. They hired a new defensive coordinator, former Badger Jim Leonhard, but he has almost all of his starters returning from the 2016 unit and likely won’t miss a beat. Wisconsin is one of those teams that always seems to reload regardless of the circumstances, and I see no reason why they won’t win the Big Ten West in 2017. Illinois is 2-25 in their last 27 games against ranked opponents, and the Badgers will almost certainly reside somewhere in the AP Top 25, if not near the top of it. Lovie’s squad might hang in there for the first half, but Wisconsin is simply too good to lose this game. That’ll be the sixth LOSS on the year for the Illini.
  4. @ Purdue (89th)... Nothing is ever guaranteed against the Boilermakers, who have won three out of the last five meetings against the orange and blue. Home/road designations don’t seem to matter much either, as Illinois has won three of the last four in West Lafayette, while Purdue has taken the last three games in Champaign. The Boilers welcome in new head coach Jeff Brohm, who actually inherits a decent roster. QB David Blough should improve in his junior season, and the contrasting styles of backs Markell Jones and Brian Lankford-Johnson should provide Brohm’s squad with a formidable offensive punch. Their defense certainly leaves something to be desired, but they will likely be better than last year’s squad, which allowed nearly 40 points per game. If all goes according to my predictions, this game will be the first of four straight the Illini would need to win if they want to become bowl-eligible. Unfortunately, I think that postseason dream will die pretty quickly with a close road LOSS to Purdue, who always seem to play the Illini well and get the advantage by being at home.

Season Four ("Rivalry Series"; Projected record: 0-3)

  1. vs. Indiana (55th)... The final three games of the season all come against “rival” schools, the first of which is a border battle with the Hoosiers. Indiana is under new leadership after firing Kevin Wilson and promoting DC Tom Allen, whose defensive-minded philosophy turned around the Hoosiers on that side of the ball last season. It will be a much larger set of tasks for Allen to oversee as he inherits the head coaching gig, but Indiana is trending upwards and will certainly be expecting a bowl berth in 2017. They make Phil Steele’s “Most Improved Teams” list, and their numbers pop quite nicely on most projection sites. The Hoosiers beat Illinois in their last meeting two years ago 52-35, and while I don’t think this game will be that high-scoring, I do think Indiana will walk away victorious once again. Looking at Indiana’s schedule, this could be a win that would make them bowl-eligible, and teams sitting on 5 wins late in the season are often more dangerous than we give them credit for. I’ll peg this as a close home LOSS for the Illini, to send them to 2-8 overall.
  2. @ Ohio State (2nd)... Not much needs to be said about this matchup. Ohio State will be one of the best teams in the country. They’ll be at home for a probable afternoon or primetime kickoff, which will be a sell-out. Illinois will play decently for one quarter, but lose by five touchdowns. Time to burn the tape and move on from this inevitable LOSS.
  3. vs. Northwestern (28th)... It’s always nice to wrap up the year at home, but the schedule does Illinois no favors by pitting them against two top 30 teams in their final two games. And a friendly reminder: if it weren’t for Josh Whitman, this game would’ve been played in front of a three-fourths empty Soldier Field. Pat Fitzgerald’s squad returns QB Clayton Thorson and RB Justin Jackson, two Big Ten standouts from 2016, and also add Oregon transfer wideout Jalen Brown. Their offense should be extremely potent this season, and their defense will back it up nicely as they return eight of last year’s starters. The Illini are 1-8 in their last nine home finales, and they’ve scored zero offensive touchdowns in the last ten quarters of those games. I think they’ll be able to get on the board in this matchup, but the Wildcats are too strong to lose to an Illinois squad that will already be looking forward to next season at this point. It’s a disappointing season-ending LOSS.

And that brings me back to this ugly number...

Projected Record: 2-10 (1-8 in B1G)

That’s undoubtedly an extremely pessimistic outlook on the 2017 season. But as I hold the team’s roster construction in one hand and the team’s schedule in the other, I have a difficult time picking more than two or three games where the Illini should even be favored. As a point of reference, Illinois’ TCR Composite Ranking sits at 99th in the country, which means the only opponent they’ll face in 2017 with a lower ranking than themselves is Ball State. They possess the offensive talent to be good for an upset or two, but I think the ceiling and the floor of this team are both pretty low. Numbers should improve from last year, but that will mainly be attributed to Lovie and his coaching staff finally having a full year under their belts, because on paper, this year’s team looks worse than last year’s. Let’s not forget that some of the best pieces of 2016’s 3-win team are gone. On offense, Wes Lunt, three starting offensive linemen and two tight ends have graduated. On defense, Dawune Smoot, Carroll Phillips and Chunky Clements all depart the line, as well as Rob Bain, Taylor Barton and Darius Mosely. There are just way too many question marks for me to say the Illini will improve enough to reach a bowl game. Another thing to keep in mind is this number:

Opponent Winning % in 2017: 14th in country, facing teams w/ combined 92-63 record in 2016

There are only thirteen teams in the nation facing a more difficult combined opponent’s record than the Illini. In Phil Steele’s Illinois team preview, he projects them to be “about a touchdown per game better offensively,” but I don’t think that’s enough in a stacked Big Ten and with a stacked non-conference slate to reach six wins. In fact, I don’t even think it’s enough to reach last year’s total of three wins. Look for the 2018 season, which should really be considered Lovie’s “second year,” to be his first realistic shot to take the team to a bowl game.

Have thoughts on Illinois’ schedule? Think my predictions are ridiculous? Want to weigh in with your own picks? Be sure to drop by and comment below!