In the spring of 2016, the University of Illinois gave itself a shot in the arm in an attempt to revitalize the lifeless carcass that was the football program. That shot was the hiring of former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Lovie Smith.
Now, entering Year Three of the Lovie experience, there is a sense of urgency in Champaign. No, not a ‘Lovie Smith is on the hot seat’ sense of urgency, but an urgency nonetheless. The Illini need to see improvement on the field and in the win column in order to keep their upward trend in recruiting and lock down some talented young players for the 2019 campaign and on.
So, with just weeks until the football season is underway, what needs to happen for Illinois to consider 2018 a successful season?
Of course, the first place we need to look for improvement is the offensive side of the ball. In 2017, the Illini ranked near the bottom of the country in total offense (126 out of 129), passing offense (106 out of 129), rushing offense (122 out of 129), and total first downs (125 out of 129).
Put mildly, the offense for Illinois last season was putrid, and the departure of Garrick McGee has hopefully absolved at least part of the offensive woes. McGee, however limited his play calling was, cannot shoulder all blame for lack of production on the field. New OC Rod Smith, who was instrumental in a more than 10 percent increase in completion percentage and a near 30 point increase in passer rating, takes over for the Illini looking to build up the stable of arms residing in Champaign.
On the offensive side of the ball, fans will want to see a few things. First, an overall increase in offensive output. Whether it be through the air or on the ground, fans are going to need a reason to be excited and some firepower will help. Now it would also help for Illinois to actually get on the scoreboard, too. Yards are great, but the Illini scored just 19 offensive touchdowns (1.58 per game) a season ago, and they need to get into the endzone more often. A healthy Mike (Dudek) & Mike (Epstein) should solve some of those issues.
Overall, while the numbers don’t support it, the Illini defense had a few bright spots last season. With nine interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries, Illinois was able to showcase some young, budding talent on the defensive front, including Isaiah Gay and Bobby Roundtree, who will be two of the cornerstones to the Hardy Nickerson’s defense. Can Bennett Williams and Stanley Green (my sleeper pick for Big Ten Defensive POY) continue to improve on their numbers from last season? Williams snagged three picks in 2017 as a freshman, while Green added one pick and forced three fumbles.
It is no mystery that this current roster is very freshman heavy. While still young, there are some talented pieces in Verdis Brown, Calvin Avery and Ron Hardge III, just to name a few. Will the defense be a repeat of 2017 with an influx of freshmen starting games and taking large chunks of playing time? Time will tell. For now, expect the defense to be improved over last season. Fans should be able to expect a stronger defensive line, a stronger pass defense, and a better overall defense that should help this team actually by competitive in 2018.
Every preseason, I find myself doing the same thing. I look at the schedule, I debate what games are winnable, and convince myself a bowl berth is in order of my beloved Illini.
The schedule opens up generally safe, with home tilts against Kent State and Western Illinois. Their first test will be against South Florida, and last year’s 24-point loss should give the Illini a little extra desire to pull out an unexpected win at Soldier Field. Big Ten play features a semi-favorable nine-game slate with home games against Penn State, Purdue, Minnesota and Iowa. On the road, the Illini travel to Rutgers, Wisconsin, Maryland, Nebraska and Northwestern.
Vegas lists the Illini as a 3.5-win team in 2018. If you assume the Kent State and Western Illinois matchups are wins, that leave 10 games that are up in the air. Can the Illini find a way to win a few more games and maybe force an upset or two? Time will tell. For now, we can assume the moves made by Lovie Smith this offseason were the right moves.
I tag the Illini at 4 wins this season (Kent State, Western Illinois, Rutgers and Minnesota) and believe the Illini will have a legitimate shot against USF, Purdue, Maryland and Northwestern. One or two of those flip to the Illini, and Champaign is going bowling. At the very least, the Illini should be able to improve their win total by a couple in 2018.
For 2018, the key is improvement. Be better on offense, on defense, on special teams. Play smarter, make fewer mistakes, and Illinois should see the future build in Champaign.
What do you want to see in 2018 from the Illini?
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