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Illinois’ 2018 Most Winnable Game Countdown: No. 7 - USF

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Hopefully Illinois doesn’t lose by 24 this time...

USF was the first real test of the year for the Illini in 2017. It likely will be this year as well.

And as you probably remember from last year, it didn’t end well.

The game looked like it could stay relatively close — albeit, with little hope of victory — for most of the first half. After that? It didn’t go so great. Even a 14-point deficit at halftime didn’t seem horrible, but Quinton Flowers and the rest of the USF Bulls just poured it on in the second half. Hence, a 20+ point loss.

The good news is there is no more Quinton Flowers. And perhaps equally exciting is all those freshmen last year who were trying to make an impact are one year wiser. Plus, it’s essentially a home game played at Soldier Field.

Let’s look at a few things that will matter in this game:

USF Bulls

Like I mentioned, Quinton Flowers, the Heisman vote-getting dual-threat QB, is long gone. And, according to Bill Connelly’s article, so are pretty much all the guys you remember from last year’s USF team (that went 10-2, by the way): Quinton Flowers, LB Auggie Sanchez, defensive linemen Mike Love and Bruce Hector, and RBs Darius Tice and D’Ernest Johnson have all departed. That is good news for Illinois.

What is not good news for Illinois? Guys like WRs Tyre McCants and Darnell Salomon, who combined for nearly 1,200 yards last season, are back. Even with the offensive turnover, the defense is supposed to still be quite solid. Connelly notes that Strong will be replacing the holes left in the defensive line with a shift in scheme and a lot of edge rushers. If the younger secondary members can hold their own, the defense should be actually pretty good.

In case the name Tyre McCants doesn’t ring any bells, he’s listed at 5’10”, 230 pounds. And he can move. This was my favorite thing I saw from him last year, in a game the Bulls eventually lost to UCF:

Illinois Fighting Illini

A lot has changed since the 2017 season for Lovie Smith. He certainly will not be playing as many freshmen as he did in his second year, and hopefully the offense will make some sort of sense, even with limited options in certain positions.

Cam Thomas, although, we know still has a ways to go as a passer, but he is a great option on the ground. Chayce Crouch could not get anything going last year against the USF defense, but it is possible with the losses on the defensive line the Bulls have had that Mike Epstein and Thomas can make use of their quick feet. Maybe, just maybe, this could open up the passing game across the middle.

I know Rod Smith wants to get Mikey Dudek and sophomore Ricky going early. If they can manage to stay on the field, the defense might actually get enough rest to not give up 40+ points. It’s too bad that Shaedon Meadors has already been ruled out for the season — he could’ve added even more depth at wideout.

Defensively, Nate Hobbs and Bennett Williams will be heading up the secondary. Tony Adams returning will help, too. Here’s that nice little video that was compiled of Bennett’s standout plays from his freshman season, for your viewing pleasure:

But pressure will need to come up front, too, from guys like Isaiah Gay and Bobby Roundtree who have each hopefully gained a bit of mass this offseason.

Prediction

I think it’s going to be closer that 24 points, but I don’t think the Illini will be able to pull this one off. Early in a season where Smith is still relying on underclassmen to make plays, the Bulls will return enough firepower to cause problems on defense and score against an Illini linebacking corps that is very much in question heading into the season.

I wouldn’t be totally shocked if Illinois held the lead in the second quarter, but this one will go Charlie Strong’s way again.

Final: USF 31, Illinois 21

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