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23 Bold Predictions for the 2017 Illinois Football Season

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The 2017 Illini are loaded with new faces. How do we see things shaking out for Lovie Smith’s second season?

Penn State v Illinois
Remember this guy? He’s pretty good.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Back in 2015, when I was just a wee, college-attending lad, I crafted a fun list of 29 predictions for that Illini football season.

Some of them looked good by the following summer (“Ke’Shawn Vaughn will start a game at running back,” and he started five) and some looked embarrassing (“Illinois will hire Justin Fuente from Memphis to be the next head coach.”).

Two years later, after plenty of life experiences and a considerably greater amount of liver stress, I’m back with the hottest takes this side of the Allegheny. Penn State fans live east of the Allegheny, but Clay Travis does not — There’s your range of insanity.

23 Illini Football Predictions for the 2017 Season

  1. Chayce Crouch will, and should, start all 12 games at quarterback. This one probably seems obvious now. “You idiot, of course Chayce Crouch is going to start every game.” But consider the chance of injury for a quarterback whose calling card thus far is bowling over five Purdue linebackers per drive over a full half. I think Crouch wisens up a bit and protects his body more this season, knowing how much he means to the team. There’s one other aspect to this story: I predict Crouch has at least a game or two this season where he throws multiple interceptions and has some really poor passing stats. When that happens, I’m betting Ol’ Reliable (AKA cranky, whiny Illini fans) will jump in line to complain about “Real Quarterback” Jeff George Jr. not getting under center for a game. Ol’ Reliable won’t affect any coaching decisions, but does make my prediction a bit more interesting.
  2. Crouch will throw for between 2,000 and 2,500 passing yards. The Illini ranked 112th in the country last season in team passing yards with just over 2,000. Despite the return of Mike Dudek, the arrival of Ricky Smalling and the development of Malik Turner, I expect the Illini to focus on the ground game and once again finish well below average in passing yards.
  3. Crouch doubles Wes Lunt’s highest-ever single-season interception total (6 -> at least 12). The Illini haven’t thrown double-digit interceptions as a team since 2014. Lunt was particularly averse to throwing into coverage, a trait that helped keep Illinois from getting blown out a few times but likely lost them a game or two because of the lack of aggression. I expect Illinois to challenge Crouch, who’s clearly a more aggressive player and leader, to throw downfield more often in play action. Crouch’s “meh” arm will probably result in plenty of interceptions, but we’ll hopefully see a significant increase in the number of deep balls to Malik Turner. That dude is tall — just throw it somewhere in the vicinity!
  4. Crouch will score at least 7 rushing touchdowns. In recent years, the Illini have thrown quite a bit in the red zone. Lunt performed well on rollout tosses to the flats and quick outs to receivers, so those accounted for plenty of Illini touchdowns. Crouch brings a much different flavor to the offense. Quarterbacks who can run are particularly useful in the red zone, when the defense has to focus on locking down all the other quick options. Expect offensive coordinator Garrick McGee to lean on Crouch (ha!) near the end zone.
  5. Kendrick Foster and Mike Epstein will combine for over 1,300 rushing yards. Illinois totaled about 1,700 rushing yards (sacks included, sadly) as a team last season, mostly split among Foster, Reggie Corbin and Ke’Shawn Vaughn. With Vaughn out of the picture and Corbin starting the season injured, I expect the true freshman Epstein to surge into the primary back-up role before Big Ten play. Coaches have raved about Epstein’s burst and agility. That top-end speed and a bit of extra power should make him more valuable than Corbin. For what it’s worth, I’d peg Foster for around 900 rushing yards this season, which leaves Mike Epstein’s goal at around 400.
  6. Reggie Corbin tallies fewer than 60 carries. Corbin finished last season with 86 carries for 523 yards, an impressive total that typically would lead to a huge step up in workload this season. But Corbin is starting the season injured, and he may never get his job back given how talented Epstein and Ra’Von Bonner have looked during training camp. This prediction shouldn’t be an indictment on Corbin, who is fantastically agile. Illinois is simply loaded at running back, and the opportunities may not be there when Corbin returns to full health.
  7. Malik Turner and Mike Dudek combine for more than 1,500 yards receiving. This prediction may not seem too ambitious given the hype surrounding these two. But with Dudek coming off two ACL tears, it may take him some time to get back in the flow of the game. Smith and McGee will likely limit Dudek’s reps early in the season, and who knows how Dudek will react to full-contact hits over the middle. I don’t expect either of these two to crest 1,000 yards, simply because Illinois is not a team built to throw the football, but I see both of them ending up higher than 750 yards.
  8. Malik Turner and Mike Dudek both earn All-B1G honors, or at the very least, honorable mentions. See above. These two will be trying their best to make Chayce Crouch look good, and I foresee the media being impressed with how much they do on a week-to-week basis. Plus, name recognition.
  9. Ricky Smalling is the Illini’s third-leading receiver. Illinois is devoted to playing its youth, and Smalling has already proven himself capable enough to land a starting spot on the depth chart. This may be a tight contest between Smalling and Sam Mays, but I think Smalling comes out ahead. He’ll get plenty of snaps as a slot receiver, making him an easier target for Crouch.
  10. Nick Allegretti receives All-B1G honors, but Christian DiLauro is snubbed. Picking both of these two to make it would perhaps be too ambitious, as there are plenty of great linemen in the Big Ten (#EATINCOUNTRY). But I think picking one is adequate. DiLauro has the edge of being a senior, and he may earn honorable mention, but Allegretti is the one who seems to have the hype train behind him this season. Give me the guard/center.
  11. Boyd/Megginson/Kramer/Allegretti/DiLauro is the most-used starting offensive line. This will likely not be the starting offensive line against Ball State on Saturday. True freshman Alex Palczewski will most likely start at guard and push Megginson out to tackle, because true freshman Larry Boyd suffered an injury during camp and may not yet be 100 percent. However, when Boyd returns to full health, I expect offensive line coach Luke Butkus to bring Megginson inside to the guard position, where he seems more comfortable, and start Boyd for the remainder of the season.
  12. Illinois three-and-outs on just 20 percent of the team’s offensive possessions. Last year, Illinois three-and-outed on 29 percent of offensive possessions, good for a frostbite-inducing 120th in the country. Lowering that to 20 percent is a very tall task — 20 percent was approximately the national average last season, and roughly where Penn State ranked — but I expect efficiency to be a top priority for this coaching staff. Illinois spent the last four years throwing on first down, then running on second-and-10, then getting sacked on third-and-8. Here’s hoping they can flip the script with the addition of a running quarterback.
  13. Illinois’ adjusted offensive pace will once again finish below 120th in the country. The Illini ranked 128th — yes, last — in the nation in Bill Connelly’s adjusted pace statistic last season, easily outpacing (or rather, not outpacing) 127th-ranked Georgia State. Illinois has great skill players this season, but it’s hard to imagine McGee and Smith not utilizing the key advantages of their quarterback. Short-to-medium gains from Crouch and Illinois’ talented backfield will be the lifeblood of the offense this season, and going fast will just further tax the inexperienced Illini defense.
  14. James Crawford will be the best Illini pass rusher, but record 5.0 sacks or fewer this season. Carroll Phillips led Illinois last season with 9.0 sacks, but he was an extremely skilled speed rusher (good enough to get him an NFL bid). Crawford, who’s now played at all three levels of the defense during his time at Illinois, likely won’t have the necessary technical skill in his first full season at defensive end. But there just aren’t many pass-rushing options on this Illinois team aside from Crawford. Sean Adesanya is only now earning his first playing time in an orange-and-blue uniform, and I don’t expect defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson to be too aggressive with sending linebackers on passing downs this season. With all this youth, Illinois will most likely just be trying to stay alive defensively. Crawford is one of few players who has both the skills and the consistent opportunity to get to the quarterback.
  15. Tre Watson will make a huge leap this season to All-B1G honorable mention, but won’t finish with 100-plus tackles. Watson totaled 102 tackles last season from a very active weakside linebacker position. Now at the inside linebacker spot, I expect Watson to do more of the dirty work on rushing downs and leave clean-up duty to JUCO WLB Delshawn Phillips and company. Watson gave up a couple big plays last season, but he established himself as the leader of the Illini defense during training camp. He’ll get the media recognition for his efforts, but I think his statistical season won’t be quite as voluminous as last year.
  16. Delshawn Phillips will finish with 100-plus tackles this season. Similar reasoning to the last point. When you’re just getting started as a linebacker, perhaps the easiest part of the job is hitting ball carriers in between the tackles. We saw it with Watson last year as a first-time starter, and I think we’ll see it again with Phillips.
  17. Stanley Green is Wally Pipp’d by Bennett Williams by the end of the season, and Williams finishes with 3 or more interceptions. All the news out of training camp has been positive for true freshman safety Bennett Williams. He’s slated to start in the defensive backfield with sophomore Patrick Nelson, and I expect him to show simply too much promise for the coaching staff to justify bringing Green back into the starting lineup after his first-half suspension against Ball State (Green was ejected against Northwestern last season). Green and Williams will split time for a few games, and I expect Williams to officially pull ahead by conference schedule. Green may find playing time elsewhere though, especially if Jaylen Dunlap is injured for more than a couple games. Speaking of Dunlap...
  18. Jaylen Dunlap finishes his career with just one interception, but becomes the only Fighting Illini drafted in 2018. The only other potential Illini draftees are Malik Turner and Christian DiLauro, both of whom could probably earn an NFL cup of coffee at the very least. But Dunlap seems to be the one prospect who really intrigues NFL scouts with his size and skill, and someone should take a flyer on him by the 7th round. As for the interceptions, it’s a surprise Dunlap has yet to earn one in his career thus far. His smart decision-making and physicality should earn him at least one this season. But with all the questions surrounding Illinois’ other secondary positions, and all the youth at those positions, teams will be avoiding Dunlap too often for him to force multiple turnovers this season.
  19. Tony Adams earns the boundary corner spot by the homecoming game against Wisconsin. Adams has earned early reviews as the most talented corner for the spot, but I could see Ahmari Hayes starting in the position because of his experience. Once Dunlap returns from injury though, we’ll see how much the Illini coaching staff is willing to prioritize youth at the position. If they’re planning solely for the future, I’d expect to see Adams more and more often by midseason.
  20. The defense forces more turnovers (18-plus) than last season. Perhaps it’s because of the new quarterback, but I noticed more turnovers than ever coming out of training camp this season. Let’s hope *crosses fingers* it’s not because of offensive failings, but defensive superiority. The Illini are unbelievably young — they’re going to give up a ton of big plays this season. But they could overcome some of those mistakes by showing off their improved athleticism and forcing turnovers. That’s what Lovie Smith built his career on, and he’ll need to institute the same beliefs at the college level.
  21. The loser of the Mike Epstein/Reggie Corbin position battle at back-up running back ends up playing a huge part in the return game. These two both have enough skill at making people miss that they need to see the field every game. I think Epstein comes out on top at RB2, but I hope to see Corbin get plenty of reps returning kicks and punts.
  22. More than 17 freshmen see the field in Lovie Smith’s second season. Robert of Illiniboard did a nice job of encapsulating this in his MEGA-preview, but there are anywhere between 12 and 20 freshmen who could earn time this year. I’ll roughly split the difference where Robert did in his own piece and say at least 17 true freshmen play at some point this season. That bodes poorly for Illinois’ chances of winning games, but will hopefully bolster the team’s future.
  23. Illinois finishes the 2017 season with a 3-9 record, including wins over Ball State, Rutgers and Purdue. This team is just too young. I could definitely see them getting to four wins with a victory over Western Kentucky or Indiana at home, but I don’t see it going much further than that. Three-to-four wins seems like the sweet spot this season, and I’ll put myself on the slightly pessimistic side.

And that’ll do it for my 2017 Illini predictions. As a bonus, here’s my projected College Football Playoff: Alabama, Florida State, Michigan, Stanford. Enjoy the college football, ladies and gents. We made it through the offseason.

Follow Matt Silich on Twitter at @msilich2.