Stephen Cohn: Just seeing an Orange and Blue team back on the field
We got a short respite from the sports hellscape we were in earlier this summer when House of ‘Paign competed in The Basketball Tournament. They even upset Ohio State’s alumni team!
But besides that, we haven’t seen any Illini team take the field or court since the second week of March, which at this point was more than seven months ago. College athletics are almost a year-round thing, with soccer starting in early August and track and field championships potentially going all the way into June and July. I’d love to know the last time there was a seven-month absence of Illinois Athletics — I’d guess it was the 1920s or ‘30s.
Nonetheless, I don’t know how good this team will be. I have expectations, but I keep them low when possible. All I know is that it’s wonderful to have the Illini to cheer for again.
Michael Berns: Which running back(s) emerge
I’m excited that Big Ten Football is back. I didn’t think we’d get here, but here we are, and nothing but smiles because of it. Eight games. Many questions to be answered. The one question I’m most curious to see answered: How does the running back situation shake out? The Illini have been blessed with some fantastic running backs in recent seasons. Reggie Corbin. Josh Ferguson. Rashard Mendenhall. Mikel Leshoure. Jason Ford. Donovonn Young. Those were all reliable backs worthy of respect around the Big Ten Conference.
Who steps up in 2020? Rod Smith’s offense is a spread-em-out-wide system, which leaves plenty of massive holes and one-on-one matchups in the center of the field. Who’s the guy to make big plays? Mike Epstein is the most experienced, talented back on the roster. Given his history with injuries, it’s unreasonable to expect him to play all eight games and be the guy Illinois can rely on to have 20-30 touches a game. Will it be Western Michigan Broncos transfer Chase Brown? How about true freshman and Trinity Catholic High School star Reggie Love? All will see plenty of time, but who ends up being RB1 long term?
To be successful in the Big Ten, the Illini have to be an efficient running team. 3rd and 3, 4th and 1 — Illinois needs to be able to get those couple of yards and maintain possession of the ball. How will it happen? That’s what I’m most interested to see this coming season. With one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten and an experienced quarterback, the running game is one to keep an eye on in 2020.
Matt Rejc: What will the passing game look like?
Illini football is too often just a few pieces short of having an exciting offense. Some years we’ve got great receivers, but no quarterback to get them the ball. Other years we have a quarterback who can sling it, but a weak offensive line that can’t give the passer enough time in the pocket. This year, like last year, appears to be different. We have a strong and experienced offensive line, a proven passing quarterback, and a stable of athletic receivers and tight ends who can reliably get possession of the ball.
So that’s the baseline, we have the minimum needed to move the ball through the air in this conference. But who will emerge as our leading receivers? Which Imatorbhebhe brother will make a bigger impact? Where does Luke Ford fit into the puzzle? Does Isaiah Williams follow up his bowl game performance with more appearances as a receiver?
Having followed Illinois football for many years, it’s hard to describe how pleasant it is to ask these types of questions instead of more basic ones like “we only have underclassmen on the offensive line, how will we protect the quarterback long enough for him to get the ball off?” In other words, these questions before us stem from good problems to have.
Drew Pastorek: The Notable Newcomers
I’ve mentioned my optimism regarding the offense, and my cohorts have also touched on it here. So I’ll choose to pivot a bit and focus on the Illini’s new faces. I’ll start with the offense. Brian Hightower, Khmari Thompson, Desmond Dan, Luke Ford, Daniel Imatorbhebhe, James Frenchie & Reggie Love all have potential to be impact playmakers. Brandon Peters should be the happiest guy in Champaign.
Four-star DB Marquez Beason missed all of 2019 with a knee injury, and figures to play a large part in the secondary and special teams this year. Miami transfer Derrick Smith converted from linebacker to safety in the offseason. Roderick Perry was an FCS All-American at South Carolina State and is one of the top-rated defensive tackle prospects in the Big Ten. I’ll also be interested to see if JUCO transfer Anthony Shipton can pose a threat on the defensive line.
And we’ve seen throughout his tenure that Lovie Smith isn’t shy about playing freshmen — there will likely be several more names worth keeping an eye on in 2020. Can these newcomers move the needle in a pandemic-shortened season?
Tristen Kissack: How Illinois fares with a conference-only schedule
It’s no secret the Illini finally made it to a bowl game last season for the first time since 2014. Sure, they came up short against California in the Redbox Bowl, but they made it. And getting to another bowl will be the goal this year as well. Without one of the softest non-conference schedules in the country, victories will be hard to come by. There’s no win requirement to make a bowl game this year, so that helps. But it’s hard to imagine two wins is going to get it done. Purdue and Rutgers are winnable, and frankly, games Illinois should be favored in. But what games will it steal outside of that? Maybe the Illini upset Minnesota at home, or maybe they take a road trip up I-57 and steal one in Evanston.
This is as competitive a roster the Illini will have for the next couple of seasons: a fifth-year senior under center, one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten, weapons in the passing game, potential in the backfield and an experienced defense. Now what can Lovie do with that in year five?