The Fighting Illini went 2-10 last year, so there’s not really any room to drop that win total this year. Any improvement in our record means those wins have to come from somewhere, and some teams will end up disappointed with their records compared to 2017’s.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Mike Gundy’s Cowboys have always done best with a proven, experienced, talented quarterback, and the 2018 squad will have to replace not only quarterback Mason Rudolph but their top two receivers and multiple offensive linemen. This team did most of its damage through the air last year and no team contained the threat of James Washington, who won the Biletnikoff award as the nation’s top receiver.
Though fellow Big 12 frontrunners Oklahoma and TCU replace prolific quarterbacks as well, those teams had more consistent defenses and return more skill players. Gundy also has a new defensive coordinator on staff this year, and with the offensive firepower decreasing, the defense will have to significantly improve to win games. This will still be a winning team, but they will be closer to the middle of the pack in the conference and with an early game against a proven Boise State roster, they are not likely to reach ten wins as they did last year.
Washington State Cougars
Similarly to Gundy, fellow Mike Mike Leach has to replace a stalwart at quarterback, the top two receivers and the defensive coordinator. However, he’s had to replace more assistants, and unlike Gundy, he didn’t fire his DC. After quickly turning the Coug defense into a unit capable of holding serve, Alex Grinch stole Christmas from Pullman by going to Ohio State to become a positional coach. You heard that right: Urban Meyer poached an up-and-coming coordinator from a Power 5 school to take on a smaller role under the incumbent defensive coordinator. What can you do?
If Lovie Smith somehow takes this year’s squad to a bowl game, I half expect him to take an unpaid internship at Ohio State.
Anyway, the Cougs also have to replace a prolific defensive lineman in Hercules Mata’afa, which is just a phenomenal name. This will be a heavy transitional year for Wazzu. A lot of experience — both on the roster and on the staff — has departed. For some reason, they play Eastern Washington again, even though the local FCS power has proven that they’re superior. Seriously, Eastern Washington has beaten some good FBS teams, Wazzu included.
South Florida Bulls
Well of course they’ll win less than they did last year, they’ll start off by picking up an L at Soldier Field, right?
Regardless of that game though, Charlie Strong is going to have to prove his coaching chops all over again. Recruiting at USF has been steady and solid; they’re traditionally among the most talented mid-majors. However, virtually the whole starting lineup graduated, including and most importantly the heart and soul of the team, quarterback Quinton Flowers.
The jury’s still out on whether or not Strong can maintain a program long-term. He won prolifically at Louisville, however, his tenure was short and marked with some phenomenally good fortune. After winning 10 in his inaugural season in Tampa, Strong will have to once again coach up a very athletic but raw squad of players. This went poorly in Austin. It won’t necessarily fail in Tampa, but ten wins is asking a lot, particularly when the schedule includes Georgia Tech, Cincinnati, Temple, UCF, Houston and the dreaded trip to Chicago to play the pride and joy of the Land of Lincoln, the Illinois Fighting Illini.
What a bizarre thing the second era of Petrino at Louisville is turning out to be. As soon as it was taken out of Garrick McGee’s hands in 2016, the offense absolutely exploded and the Cardinals were one of the most exciting teams in the country. Lamar Jackson followed up his incredible, Heisman-winning campaign by developing into a better passer...while his team fell apart and lost five games. Now, Jackson is gone.
This could be an actual bad team. Petrino has proven he can win in the college game, but Jackson had very little help last year as the defense couldn’t do enough to help one of the best quarterbacks in football win and the offensive line forced him to run for his life. I honestly think Jackson alone won them several games last year, because he was playing on Heisman difficulty.
There are question marks everywhere, especially after having two defensive backs taken high in the draft. The offensive backfield and the defensive line are two especially glaring weaknesses. Louisville will struggle to find more than six wins this year.
Terrified of Calvin Avery, the Wildcats have elected to forfeit their entire 2018 season.
But actually, what’s happening is simply another case of a team losing established starters from a very good season. I do not actually think Justin Jackson is irreplaceable, as Jeremy Larkin and John Moten will run the same system behind a similarly talented line. However, the stamina and power of Jackson meant 3 yards often became 4, and when you play offense at the pace the Wildcats do, that’s often the difference between first downs and punting.
Quarterback could be a concern as Clayton Thorson suffered a torn ACL late in their bowl game and it’s unclear if he’ll be ready to go. There is virtually nothing behind him worth discussing, so his health is the biggest question mark on this team.
The defensive backfield is also quite thin this year,
so they may be particularly vulnerable to the precision aerial attack of the Fighting Illini gunslingers
And of course, there’s that game at the end of the year