Stephen Cohn: 6-4 overall (5-3 regular season), win Quick Lane Bowl over some random MAC team
Everything this year is weird, so why not an Illinois team finishing above .500 in the regular season AND a bowl win. The last time we got one of those? Under Ron Turner in 1999, when Illinois went 8-4 and won the MicronPC Bowl (again, looking for above .500 in the regular season — I’ve got them pegged at 5-3 through their eight games — plus a bowl win). What I’m saying here is ILLINOIS HAS A CHANCE TO DO SOMETHING IT HASN’T DONE THIS MILLENNIUM.
Now, let me explain. I don’t love getting into the team too much here, especially when we haven’t really seen them. I like Brandon Peters enough to believe, the defense showed me enough last season to make me believe, and it’s 2020. So why now? I’ve got a W over a shorthanded Wisconsin, wins over Purdue, Rutgers and Northwestern, and a chance to show Nebraska who’s boss. Lose to an Indiana or Michigan in Big Ten Championship week before finishing the season with a win in the Quick Lane Bowl (idk how these bowls are going to work, it’s going to be weird). Do your thing, 2020.
Michael Berns: 3-5 overall, no bowl
I love Brandon Peters. I love the offensive line even more. The secondary is exciting, but I have concerns on the defensive line, and I have concerns the Illini are not going to be able to get much pressure on the opposing quarterbacks in this league.
I see three wins: Home Purdue, at Rutgers, at Northwestern. The Illini don’t go bowling, but in a weird, shortened year without playing cupcakes in the non-conference, that can be forgiven. Beating Northwestern is our Super Bowl. That game, now more than ever, with a knock-on-wood healthy Brandon Peters, in the freezing cold December wind off the coast of Lake Michigan — is crucial for the Illini fanbase.
Matt Rejc: 4-6 overall, (3-5 regular season), defeat West Virginia in the Cheez-It Bowl
This is easily going to be the strangest season of college football in recent memory. And for teams that aren’t competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff, it’s almost a free season. All players get a free year of eligibility and there’s no minimum number of wins for a team to qualify for a bowl game. That said, this is the team that Lovie Smith has been building toward since 2016, and the pressure will be on to improve on Illinois’ 2019 performance. I see the Illini defeating Purdue and Rutgers, and stealing a game from a ranked opponent like Wisconsin or Minnesota.
Covid impacts aside, there’s too many question marks on the roster for me to confidently predict a .500 record against a conference-only schedule. Who provides depth at running back? Who puts consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks? Who fills in for Blake Jeresaty? Some of these questions will of course be answered, but in a season with so many uncertainties and a difficult schedule, it’s hard to predict much success.
Raul Rodriguez: 5-5 overall, (5-3 regular season), Lose to Ole Miss in the Music City Bowl
The Illini return a significant amount of production which should be beneficial in a strange and haphazard season. Expect this offense, in year 3 under offensive coordinator Rod Smith, to be the best we have seen since the Ron Zook days, and with so many defenses throughout college football struggling, expect the Illini to be in a lot of shootouts.
This is the team Lovie has built towards, and with the NCAA making this a free eligibility year, the Illini have a chance to cement themselves as a decent program under Lovie Smith. I predict the Illini will lose to Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Ohio State but will prevail against Purdue, Minnesota, Rutgers, Iowa, and Northwestern.
Drew Pastorek: 4-6 overall (4-4 regular season), Lose to Pittsburgh in Belk Bowl
I would’ve easily pegged Illinois for seven regular season wins this year if not for the pandemic, but I still think this schedule is fairly manageable. I believe they have enough juice on offense to compete with most of the teams in the B1G West. I’m also forecasting Purdue & Rutgers as definite victories for the Illini, with the other regular season wins coming against either Minnesota, Nebraska, or Northwestern. Illinois has a tendency to get in its own way, so being fundamentally sound and cutting out the mental mistakes will be critical...especially in an abbreviated season with fewer practices to iron things out.
The defense is iffy, but I’m bullish on the offense. Josh Imatorbhebhe & Luke Ford are as good as any WR/TE combo in the conference (excluding Ohio State) but Illinois shouldn’t have to rely only on them to make big plays. This may be the year the Illini can score enough points to make up for some of their flaws — if you’re gonna be average, at least be entertaining.
Billy Lawton: 5-5 overall (4-4 regular season), loss to Ohio in the Quick Lane Bowl
The Illini should make some noise in the Big Ten West this season, if they can follow up their momentum wins against Michigan State and Wisconsin from last season. I have concerns about which version of the team we will see on a weekly basis, the exciting playmaking one from the win against Wisconsin or the lackluster, hapless team in the Northwestern game at the end of last season. In any event, we have a decidedly more veteran squad along the offensive line and in the backend defensively, which should help offset some of the offseason losses along the defensive line and at running back.
Brandon Peters showed flashes of his potential in Rod Smith’s offense last season, and I expect him to take some steps forward with Luke Ford now in the mix as a go to safety blanket at TE and the return of Josh Imatorbhebhe’s big playmaking. Reggie Love may have to step up early on, given Mike Epstein’s injury history, Ra’Von Bonner’s opt out, and Reggie Corbin’s early exit for the NFL. The veteran line should help in that regard, and creative use of Isaiah Williams could bring some flare and dynamism to the Illini rushing attack. The loss of Dele Harding will hurt and may mean a step back against the run game defensively, but pass coverage and takeaways should be there once again this season with a veteran secondary.
I forecast wins against Purdue, Minnesota, Rutgers, and at Northwestern. This Illini offense should have enough to keep the chains moving against the more middling teams in the conference but will experience the same recurring growing pains and consistency issues against the likes of perennial powers Ohio State, Iowa, and Wisconsin with their stout power in the trenches on both sides of the ball.