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Bold/Unbold Predictions: Illinois Football

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Here are some hot (and cold!) takes on the upcoming season.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Bold Prediction: Illinois will win a Big Ten road game

Not only will Illinois win a conference game against this year, they will win a conference road game.

Here is the road conference schedule for Illinois:

  • 10/6 @ Rutgers
  • 10/20 @ Wisconsin
  • 10/27 @ Maryland
  • 11/10 @ Nebraska
  • 11/24 @ Northwestern

They aren’t going to beat Wisconsin, that’s guaranteed. Northwestern is not impossible, but the Illini will be heavy underdogs. Nebraska is rebuilding, but they are ahead of Illinois in that regard and Nebraska is a very tough place to play.

But there are two games that Illinois has a real shot to win: Rutgers and Maryland. Last year, Rutgers pretty easily beat Illinois, but the Knights are still one of the least talented teams in the Big Ten. Who knows how Maryland is going to react when DJ Durkin is fired and they are led by an interim coach in Matt Canada, who was just hired this offseason.

Illinois will get one of those two. I can’t say which one, but the Illini will finally get a road conference win for the first time since Rutgers in 2016.

On the other hand I don’t think Illinois wins a home conference game. Penn State is a sure loss. Iowa is a long shot. Purdue has Jeff Brohm and a really good offense despite losses on defense. Minnesota looks to be the easiest Big Ten game for Illinois, but I don’t know. I don’t feel good about it. I never feel good about playing the Gophers. We always play Minnesota badly. Illinois only won once over the Gophers in the 2010s.

But hey, at least we can enjoy some schadenfreude at Maryland/Rutgers expense fans when we beat them.

Unbold Prediction: AJ Bush won’t be the savior of the Illini offense

Take a look at the following stat line:

Passing: 236/396, 59.6% completion, 2991 yards, 7.6 YPA, 20 TD, 9 INT

Rushing: 124 attempts, 324 yards, 3.6 per carry, 6 TDs

Those were the numbers of Virginia Tech’s starting QB Josh Jackson in 2017 — the player that AJ Bush backed up with the Hookies. These are solid numbers to be sure. It’s not bad at all, but they aren’t that good. Jackson didn’t hurt the Hookies, but he didn’t do too much to help them either. He was your average Power Five starting QB.

Reports are that AJ Bush has looked really good in practice for Illinois. He has won the job for sure, but I think expectations are growing too high for Bush. Given that Bush was backing up a player like Josh Jackson, who wasn’t spectacular in any means, it’s unrealistic to think AJ Bush will be any better.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think AJ Bush can be the best QB Illinois has had since Scheelhaase — it wasn’t your fault, Wes Lunt, that your line was total garbage. However, Bush is not going to be the missing piece for the offense. He will give Illinois much needed improvement, but in the end, average QB play. The Illini offense still has a long way to go.

I expect a line of around 2,300 yards passing for Bush with 14 TDs and 8 INTs with an under 60% completion. He’ll get around 600 rushing yards and a few TDs as well.

Hell of a lot better than Chayce Crouch/Jeff George the Younger/True Freshman Cam Thomas, but not good enough for Illinois to threaten a bowl game.

Bold Prediction: Illinois has two players drafted in the NFL Draft

Illinois was shut out of the NFL Draft last season. The last player selected was Dawuane Smoot in 2017.

Not only do I think Illinois gets a player selected, I think they will get two: Nick Allegretti and Mike Dudek.

Nick Allegretti has been a very solid Big Ten lineman and will have 30+ starts and 40+ games under his belt after this season. He has proven to be durable with 24 straight starts and can play both guard and center. He also has NFL size at 6-foot-4 and 320 pounds. All of that is well worth a 4th-6th round pick.

Dudek is a longer shot, just due to injuries. As we all know, he missed two straight seasons with ACL tears, and was limited to seven games in 2017. However, when he is on the field, he is a true game-changer.

His freshman year alone drew the eyes of NFL scouts. If he can show that he is over his injuries and can play in 10 or more games this fall, someone will take a shot on him in the Draft. Slot receivers are incredibly valuable and someone as talented as Dudek is well worth a late round flyer if he can prove his health.

On the bright side, his injuries have let him build an even better body for pro football. Please stay healthy, Mikey.

Unbold Prediction: Lovie Smith won’t be fired

We’ll keep saying it again and again if we have to until the national media realizes they are wrong. Lovie Smith will not be fired.......(unless he loses one of the first two games on his way to a 1-11 or 0-12 season, but that won’t happen. Please don’t happen.)

Illinois can lose every Big Ten game and Josh Whitman will not lose any confidence in his decision to hire Lovie Smith. He is taking the long-term view and has given Lovie a long leash. Whether this is right or wrong can be debated — and I for one have brought up many concerns about it on Twitter — but it’s beyond a given that this is the plan. Lovie Smith will be Illinois’ Head Coach in 2019 regardless of this season’s outcome.

2019 though.....show us something Lovie. That will be year 4 of 5 of his contract and Whitman will be left with an extend-or-fire situation in December of 2019. It may be bowl game or bust for 2019, but not for 2018 as many in the national media has predicted.

Bold Prediction: Bobby Roundtree gets at least 8.0 sacks

This one may be more of me wanting to speak this into existence, but I expect a big step-up this year from Squarebush, I mean Roundtree.

Roundtree was the best defensive lineman for the Illini last season as a true freshman. He showed a lot of potential early in the season, but struggled in Big Ten play once opposition offensive lineman quality rose. According to Illinois’ website, Roundtree is up 10 pounds this offseason to 255, which should help him be more physical at the line of scrimmage and shed blockers easier.

Roundtree had 4 sacks last year. Let’s get that to 8 for this season and finally have a player who can help make big plays for the Illini defense, which is something I talked about Illinois needing in the latest episode of the We Know You Have Sand, Illinois podcast.

Listen to my damn podcast already.

Unbold Prediction: At least four quarterbacks will play

This will come thanks of the new redshirt rules allowing players to play in up to four games and still take a redshirt season. Illinois has five total scholarship QBs this season — first one to name them all gets a prize. The prize is tickets to an Illini home game the Saturday after Thanksgiving, just let me know when you want to go and I’ll send you 3 bucks for the ticket.

Play is also the key word in this prediction. It’s likely that AJ Bush and maybe Cam Thomas play as a starter. Matt Robinson could also get a look at the beginning of a game. But we will be seeing plays of Cam Thomas here and there early in the season at QB with his running ability. AJ Bush of course will play as the starter. Matt Robinson will get looks in garbage time given his good performances in camp.

At some point in the season, likely after Illinois falls out of the race for a bowl game, the team will take a “fuck-it” approach. Play all the freshman, there won’t be a reason not to. Give MJ Rivers some looks. He won’t lose his redshirt so why not give him a drive or two against Iowa or Minnesota at home? Screw it. Put him in the game and just call four-verts every time and let that damn ball fly.

Same with Coran Taylor, but he’s a bit further behind, and Illinois may want to spread out the extra snaps between Rivers and Robinson more this season.

Given the new redshirt rule, it would be coaching malpractice to not give these freshman QBs some game-reps.

Give us your spiciest/blandest predictions for the upcoming Illinois football season in the comments.

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