On November 24, 2018, Illinois lost 24-16 to Northwestern to wrap up the 4-8 season. On November 25, Athletic Director Josh Whitman announced an extension to head coach Lovie Smith’s contract via an open letter.
The past season was not what many had hoped. Doubling up the win total from 2017 to 2018 was not as satisfying as it could have been given how bad the defense was and given 46-7 and 63-0 losses to Purdue and Iowa.
The 2019 season offers hope, led by an incoming freshman class Illinois fans have been excited about for well over a year. A ton of pressure will face Isaiah Williams, who like it or not is largely expected to be the savior of the Fighting Illini program.
The 2019 season offers hope with an extremely easy non-conference schedule and a cross-divisional game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
Here’s an all-too early look at the 2019 schedule:
August 31 vs Akron: These two programs have only met once before — back in 1996, a year in which Illinois went 2-9. One of those two wins was a 38-7 home victory over the Akron Zips.
The Fighting Illini will be facing an Akron program in shambles. Akron fired head coach Terry Bowden after seven years and an overall record of 35-52 at the school. As of today, Akron has yet to hire a new head football coach, but considering the “cash-strapped” situation at the University of Akron (Bowden was making $315K a year), don’t expect a significant haul. Kato Nelson is a solid quarterback who will be returning for his junior season. Winnability: 5/5
September 7 at Connecticut: UCONN is one of a small handful of Division I football teams with a worse record over the last two seasons than the Illini. The Huskies are coming off of a 1-11 season in 2018 — the lone win came against FCS school Rhode Island. This will be the first ever matchup between UCONN and Illinois, and this will be Game 1 of a 2-game series against the Huskies. These two will play again in 2020 in Champaign.
*For those unaware, UCONN Football has an odd, sort of detached aura surrounding its program. Its home games are played at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, located 25 miles away from Storrs — home of UCONN’s undergraduate and main campus. Unlike the men’s and women’s basketball programs, there’s a real lack of support and sense of a campus community at Huskies home football games. Winnability: 4/5
September 14 vs Eastern Michigan: Two things come to mind when thinking of Eastern Michigan: 1. They play on artificial GRAY turf, and 2. They beat Purdue in 2018. EMU is going bowling to cap off this current season — they’ll play against Georgia Southern in the Camellia Bowl on Saturday [December 15].
Senior Iowa transfer Tyler Wiegers will be graduating after the bowl game, but Mike Glass III — a running quarterback who played a lot this year — is expected to be the 2019 starter. This will be the first meeting ever between Illinois and Eastern Michigan. Winnability: 4/5
September 21 vs Nebraska: Nothing is certain in college football, except for the fact that the Nebraska Cornhuskers will win more games in 2019 than they did in 2018. Adrian Martinez will be back for his sophomore campaign, and Scott Frost will continue to build up the talent around his young quarterback.
According to 247, Nebraska has fourth best recruiting class in the Big Ten for 2019. That class includes four-star athletes on both sides of ball and includes Luke McCaffrey, son of former Denver Broncos receiver Ed McCaffrey and brother of Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey and Michigan Wolverines quarterback Dylan McCaffrey. Expect Nebraska to win at least six games — likely closer to eight or nine games in 2019. Winnability: 2/5
October 5 at Minnesota: Feel good moments were few and far between for the 2018 Illinois Fighting Illini. That is why Illinois’ blowout victory over PJ Fleck’s Minnesota Golden Gophers felt so good in an otherwise disappointing season.
Looking ahead to 2019, Minnesota has some nice pieces to build around. Quarterback Tanner Morgan and running back Mohamed Ibrahim will both be return for what could be one of the better offenses in the conference. The Gophers have many pieces to add and players to replace on the defensive side of the ball. Winnability: 3/5
October 12 vs Michigan: A matchup against Michigan, at least for Illinois fans, means so much more than just a regular Big Ten game. Michigan fans don’t consider Illinois a rival — but ask any Illini fan, this one matters more than playing say Michigan State or Penn State. This will be the first game between Michigan and Illinois since 2016.
The biggest question facing Michigan this offseason relates to starting quarterback Shea Patterson. Will he stay or will he declare for the NFL Draft? In one of the weakest quarterback draft classes in years, it might behoove the former 5-star signal caller to leave a little bit earlier than he would have normally considering the quarterback draft competition. Winnability: 2/5
October 19 vs Wisconsin: After last season’s Homecoming football game debacle against Purdue, I guess the administration’s thought process went a little something like this: It’s hard to predict a game we can easily win. We are Illinois, after all. Let’s just schedule the Wisconsin Badgers and hope to the football gods we can make this thing competitive.
We don’t know who Wisconsin’s starting quarterback will be, though it’s looking like Alex Hornibrook will return for his redshirt senior season. Jonathan Taylor, the winner of the 2018 Doak Walker Award will be back — he has to according to underclassman draft rules. Winnability: 1/5
October 26 at Purdue: Count us among the millions of college football fans who were shocked when head coach Jeff Brohm opted to stay at Purdue instead of jumping at the Louisville job.
Purdue spanked Illinois 46-7 in 2018 — a loss that will sting for the rest of eternity. Rondale Moore, the best overall football player in the Big Ten Conference was only a freshman this past season. He’ll be back to torment Illinois and everyone else in Purdue’s path for as long as he’s suiting up for the black & gold. Winnability: 3/5
November 2 vs Rutgers: As bad as Illinois was in 2018, there was Rutgers (1-11) to remind us that we still have a ways to go to reach rock bottom — and to remind us how fortunate Illinois is to be in the Big Ten West as opposed to the Big Ten East.
Chris Ash is 5-29 in three years at the helm at Rutgers. There won’t be a coach with a seat hotter than him heading in 2019, and it doesn’t help that former four-star quarterback, now laughing stock of the college football world Artur Sitkowski will be back for his sophomore year. Sitkowski threw more interceptions than any Division I player in 2018. Winnability: 4/5
November 9 at Michigan State: Illinois beat Michigan State the last time these two teams played in 2016, marking Lovie Smith’s third win as Illinois head football coach. Sparty prides itself on defense, and this is a usually disciplined team with a strong, intimidating front seven.
Losing stars on offense in receiver Felton Davis III and running back LJ Scott will be tough to overcome, and Brian Lewerke still has a decision to make as to whether or not he’ll declare for the NFL Draft. Lewerke’s numbers dropped considerably from 2017 to 2018 — he wasn’t the same guy, and that’s a concern for pro scouts. Right now, it’s hard to tell which players will emerge in the long offseason ahead in East Lansing. Winnability: 2/5
November 23 at Iowa: 63-0. Even if Illinois wins the next five in a row against the Hawkeyes, that 63-0 score is a day that will live in infamy. As Steve ‘Thumpasaurus’ Braun says, “that game is something Iowa fans will have on Illinois for the rest of time.”
We already know what to expect from Iowa year in and year out. They do the same thing every year, every game, and they never deviate from their system that works. Multi-tight end sets, running the football, controlling the game — they are pretty much Wisconsin with slightly less talented players and an even more conservative game plan. 63-0 is something that won’t happen again. It can’t happen again. This game can’t get here soon enough. Winnability: 2/5
November 30 vs Northwestern: Illinois leads the all-time Land of Lincoln series 55-52-5. The Fighting Illini are in real danger of losing their fifth game in a row to their rivals to the north, and that cannot happen. Northwestern is what Illinois should be — bowling every year, consistent play with the occasional upset over a ranked opponent.
Quarterback Clayton Thorson is graduating — he’s a starting quarterback that went 4-0 in this rivalry. Unfortunately for Illinois, the likely 2019 starter for the ‘Cats is Hunter Johnson — a former 5-star recruit and Clemson Tigers signee. He sat out in 2018 per transfer rules and is a wildly talented young quarterback who will have three years of eligibility remaining. Winnability: 3.5/5