Let’s get something out of the way first: Western Illinois was good last year.
But coming off an 8-4 season and an appearance in the FCS Playoffs, Western Illinois has a new head coach this year and is predicted to finish seventh (out of 10 teams) in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
While wins have been hard to come by for the Fighting Illini the last few seasons, the Illini better defeat the Leathernecks when they come to Champaign on Sept. 8. If Western is good, great. It has to be a win for Illinois. If we thought Lovie was on the hot seat before, wait until they lost to WIU. It might not be the most winnable, but it HAS to be the most winnable if Illinois wants to show any progress this season.
The Leathernecks will be led by senior quarterback Sean McGuire, who threw for 2,852 yards last season, going 219-of-342 with seven interceptions and 25 touchdowns. Another player to watch out for will be junior running back Max Norris, who rushed for 656 yards last season, picking up five touchdowns.
While Western Illinois’ offense last year was fairly evenly split between passing and running, its top wide receiver (who had nearly half their receiving yards last season) graduated, so the Leathernecks may very well favor the running game this coming season.
Illinois’ last game against an FCS opponent was back in 2016, when Lovie Smith picked up the first win of his career against Murray State, who the Illini drubbed 52-3. There’s no reason or excuse for the Illini to not win this game, especially at home, though I’d expect the margin to be a bit closer this year.
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