Let’s rip off the Band-Aid quickly: Illinois is going to have another tough season. This is one of the youngest teams in the country with a roster with only eight seniors. The team will heavily depend on freshmen to play in roles they are not ready to fill.
It is unlikely this team makes a bowl game, but that does not mean that Illinois cannot have a successful season as they look to rebuild the program.
Success for Illinois should not be measure in just wins and losses. If Illinois can do these three things, it will be a successful season, and it will help continue moving the Illini in a positive direction.
1. Be more competitive
Illinois lost seven games by at least 21 points in Lovie Smith’s first year in charge. That’s over half the games on the schedule that Illinois was utterly uncompetitive in.
Illinois does have an easier schedule this season and — even with all that was lost on defense — the number of games that Illinois is blown out in should fall. While the number of wins may not increase much, if at all, Illinois needs to show more fight in 2017.
2. Lengthen drives
Last season, as SB Nation’s own Bill Connelly pointed out in his Illinois preview, 42 percent of all Illinois offensive drives in 2017 ended within three plays or less for a non-scoring reason, typically punts and turnovers. Only Rutgers had more three and outs on offense last season in the Big Ten. In addition, 29 percent of all Illinois drives were three-and-outs.
On defense, Illinois was the worst team in the Big Ten at forcing three and outs getting them only 15.9 percent of the time, with the only other team under 20 percent being Purdue (18.5).
When you can’t consistently move the ball on offense, and you can’t stop the other team on defense, you’re likely a bad football team.
Numbers like those point to a lack of fundamentals and the inability of the team to make the simple plays on offense and defense necessary to be successful. It’s often not the explosive 25-yard runs that win games, but the three and four yard gains that keep a team moving — and keep them competitive.
If the team can find a way to improve upon those numbers, they will be more successful, and even more explosive this year. It’s way easier to say than do with such a young roster, but given the NFL expereince of the coaching staff, they should be able to find a way to be a more sound fundamental team in year two.
3. Establish an offensive identity
Take a look at some of the teams that have regularly outperform their recruiting rankings. There are teams like Stanford, Michigan State, Navy, Kansas State, and even Northwestern. What do they have in common? Established offensive identities.
Teams like those can recruit by looking for players that fit their system, they may be overlooked by some bigger programs. These teams look for guys who may not have all the skills but the right measurements and abilities to be successful in their systems. It allows Stanford to keep running the same smashmouth style of offense and Navy to use the triple option to great success without bringing in blue chip talent.
Recruiting becomes more focused, and recruits know exactly what role they can fill and the success they can have in that role.
Illinois has not had this for years. The Nathan Scheelhaase era saw four different offensive coordinators. Wes Lunt played under three different head coaches. All of these quarterbacks saw coaching staffs using the offense to fit the coach’s system and schemes, which the players weren’t recruited for them.
Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee was able to make some progress in establishing his style in year one, one that depends on establishing a dynamic rushing attack and downfield passing like he used at Louisville and Arkansas. But, he was never able to fully implement his system with a pocket QB like Wes Lunt, and a myriad of injuries along the offense.
McGee will have a mobile QB to work with in Chayce Crouch this year, and he will install more of his style of offense. It may not end up being exactly what Illinois wants with the young offensive line and an inexperienced QB, but he can finally lay the foundations of the system. That way, when coaches are visiting recruits next offseason, they can paint a clear picture to the high schoolers of what their role will be, and the recruits can better decide if they fit in the system.
It would go a long way in helping the Illini build a successful program in the future.
The Illini will likely struggle to pick up wins in 2017. It’s only year two of a total rebuild of the program, and the team is very inexperienced. But, if Illinois can make some progress in establishing an identity, playing more competitively, and executing fundamentals plays better, they can walk away with a successful 2017.