Here we are, standing on the doorstep of the 2018 Fighting Illini football season with just a handful of painstakingly long hours until we kickoff the first game of the year at Memorial Stadium.
You have read all of the pre-season coverage breaking down every position of every side of the ball, previewed the incoming talent and how they can make an immediate impact, and made your own predictions on how many conference wins the Illini will muster this year. So instead of analyzing every last angle of Lovie Smith’s team, let’s take a look at what it would be like if EVERYTHING went right this year. And I mean...EVERYTHING.
To do that, we’re going to peer into our crystal ball (provided by our very own TCR stats department), flashing ahead to the end of the 2018 football season to follow a conversation between a pair of Illini fans as they reflect on the season that transpired. The number of Keystone Lights consumed by said fans have yet to be disclosed.
To the future we go …
(We open with our two Illini fans, Pat Arnold and Carl Wollarski, who have piled out of the standing-room only crowd at Legend’s and are heading east down Green street. The date is January 1st, shortly after the conclusion of the Citrus Bowl...)
Pat: What. A. Game!!! Can you believe they pulled that off, beating the LSU Tigers in the last minute of regulation!? It doesn’t completely avenge the Sugar Bowl loss from 2002, but who would have thought we would even make a bowl game this year?
Carl: It’s unreal! Here I thought we would be talking about another 3 to 4 win season, and they managed to rattle off 10! It’s crazy!!!
Pat: I hope everyone writing off the Illini after yet another season of bad offense and lackluster recruiting classes are eating their words right now. Who would have thought we would turn out to be THAT dominant of a team?
Carl: It all started when they hired Rod Smith as Offensive Coordinator. That guy turned one of the worst offenses in all of college football into a legitimate threat in just one season! Just think about how good we’ll be in 2019 after he adds some recruits of his own...
Pat: AJ Bush really held this whole thing together. What a clutch addition.
Carl: Yeah, he was an amazing QB this year. Throwing for 3,700 yards to break the school record and rushing for 1,500 more is something I don’t think I ever expected to see from an Illinois quarterback in my lifetime. Juice Williams didn’t even accomplish that during the Rose Bowl year in ‘08!
Pat: Bush definitely got snubbed by the Heisman voters...
Carl: Absolutely. Do you think it’s because of how good Mike Epstein and Ricky Smalling were this year?
Pat: Boy, those two really helped fire things up for the offense. Good thing they will be around for the next two seasons.
Carl: If only they didn’t lose to Wisconsin in overtime, we would’ve won the West this year.
(Pat and Carl pass by Murphy’s, and see a crowd of fans celebrating the victory at the Alma Mater in front of Altgeld Hall. The bell tower chimes the fight song into the brisk winter air, as they head south down Wright street toward KAMs)
Pat: Can you believe our defense shut out USF, Purdue AND Iowa?
Carl: It was that secondary. Just look at how clutch Bennett Williams and Tony Adams were for that defense. The pick 6 to beat Northwestern was one of the best moments in program history, and remember when Williams scooped and scored against Nebraska to beat the Huskers IN Lincoln?
Pat: Such a fun season to watch that defense take over games. All that talk about “Lovie Smith defense” and turnovers FINALLY came to fruition. Heck, just look at how effective that defensive line and linebacking corps was with Hardy Nickerson at the helm. It was also great to see Del’Shawn Phillips end his career at Illinois leading the Big Ten in tackles for losses.
Carl: Just think...redshirting the two 4 star defensive linemen means there is depth on this team heading into next season. You think ESPN ranks us in the pre-season polls next year?
Pat: Without a doubt. I bet we start next season in the Top 15.
(As Pat and Carl walk past the Union Bookstore, a crowd of fans led by a guitar-wielding Brett Eldredge runs towards the quad. They turn west onto Daniel, and stop just outside the doorway)
Carl: Do you think we’ll be able to maintain this momentum into the 2019 season? Or is this just another “Year three pipe-dream” followed by another string of disappointing 4 and 5 win seasons? I don’t want to experience another tenure like Tepper, or Turner, or Zook, or Beckman, or....
Pat: Take it easy there Carl — Lovie’s system is here to stay. Don’t forget we have Marquez Beason and Isiah Williams coming to campus next season, along with those other 4-star linebackers that committed during the year. Plus, just look at that Top-15 2020 recruiting class that’s on the way...
Carl: I didn’t think there was any way this coaching staff would convince those two 5-star guys to come to Illinois, let alone have a better class than Michigan and Penn State.
Pat: I prefer this instead stressing over 3-star recruits that are on the fence between Illinois and Mizzou.
(They walk into KAMs, where Will Leitch and Tom Fornelli are buying a round of drinks for everyone at the bar. Pat and Carl find a seat in front of a TV)
Pat: Look at how much fun this is. All of these people celebrating an Illinois bowl win, with a legitimate hope of being a good football team for many years to come.
Carl: You’re right, Pat. It’s great to FINALLY be able to call ourselves a football school once again.
Pat: Who do you think wins tonight’s College Football Semifinal game? Kansas State or Boston College?
Carl: Doesn’t matter to me. Do you think there’s a chance the Illini ever get to one of those playoff games any time soon?
(As Carl finishes his thought, a shadowy figure at the end of the bar speaks...)
Voice: I’ll tell you what guys...
(Pat and Carl spin around and glance towards the voice)
Both: BILL MURRAY!?
Bill Murray: That might happen sooner than we think.