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Illinois 2020: Make Or Break

Winning Time.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Illinois Michael Allio-USA TODAY Sports

2019 is in the books. More importantly, the 2010s are in the books. When looking at the total history of Illini Athletics, it was a decade to forget.

The basketball program went 181-159 over the past 10 seasons and only made two NCAA Tournaments, never reaching the second weekend. The football team went 46-78 and reached four lower tier bowl games over that span.

Josh Whitman was hired in 2016 to put back together a program that had been beaten down to a pulp over the first half of the decade. The Whitman Era got off to a slow start, with the fanbase promising to be patient in return for long-term success and stability. The back half of this decade was always going to be rough, and it has proven to be.

However, 2019 provided glimmers of hope — perhaps we were approaching the light at the end of the tunnel. Lovie Smith reached the six-win mark after coming face to face with his firing after a 2-4 start. Brad Underwood has been hot on recruiting trail by landing Ayo Dosunmu, Kofi Cockburn and Adam Miller as headliners in the last three classes.

Both of Whitman’s headline hires are still alive and have a chance to bring Illini fans that promised sustained success.

But 2020 will prove to be a make or break calendar year for both programs.

If Brad Underwood isn’t able to reach the NCAA Tournament with the talent on the current roster and the lack of any true dominantt teams in the Big Ten this year, it’s hard to say if he ever will. Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn are underclassmen, but they provide perhaps the most talented one-two, guard-big punch in the conference. Underwood has stripped down this roster to its bones (more than once) and rebuilt it in his image. He has all of his everyday guys from top to bottom. And it’s time to take the next step.

It’s clear that Underwood feels the urgency as well. He has ditched his patented ball pressure defensive scheme for a more conservative and traditional pack-line approach. Illinois has stumbled out of the gate, but still have plenty of time to accomplish the necessary goals. This team does not need to clinch a top-four seed in the big dance, or contend for the Big Ten, or make the second weekend. We aren’t there yet. While many fans (myself included) will be underwhelmed with a 18-20 win season and a bubble team that just sneaks in as a 9-seed, it will continue to be a step in the right direction.

Basketball 2020 Resolutions:

  • Make the Tournament
  • Sign Adam Miller
  • Enter 2021 as a top-25 team

Lovie and the football team have positioned themselves nicely. The staff needed six wins in 2019 to survive to 2020 where they are hoping to have their true breakout season. Seven? Eight? Dare I say nine wins is on the radar for the orange and blue next year? That certainly seems to be the ceiling. Illinois returns a majority of its starters and will be one of the oldest teams in the country. Continuity and experience are so important in college football. The program tasted some success and some extremely high peaks in 2019. 2020 needs to be a new peak in the mountain range of Illinois Football.

A six-win 2019 season and an eight-win 2020 season will provide real recruiting momentum for Lovie and staff and will afford them a potential down year in 2021 while they rebuild the roster. A misstep next season, followed by a rebuilding year in 2021 may spell trouble that Lovie Smith won’t have time to rebound from.

2019 turned from a pressure packed year to a feel good story for Illinois Football in a blink of an eye. There won’t be nearly as many feel-good sentiments next year. There can’t be any Eastern Michigan or Northwestern performances next year. The expectation for the 2020 season should be for it to be the better than any season we saw in the 2010s.

Football Resolutions:

  • Win 7+ Regular Season games (Including starting 4-0)
  • Recruit a top 8-10 Big Ten Recruiting class
  • Find a consistent identity as a program on both sides of the ball

2020 is a big year for both programs and both coaches.

By this time next year we will likely know whether we should expect a coaching search in the next 6-12 months for both programs, or whether these are the coaches we will likely have for the entirety of the first half of the next decade.

2020 is going to be a turning point for Lovie Smith, Brad Underwood, Josh Whitman and all of Illinois Athletics.

Illini Nation will be waiting with bated breath and screaming at the top of their lungs.

#WeWillWin? 2020 should answer the question if we will.