Stephen Cohn: Illinois basketball wins the Big Ten
I don’t know how bold this is to be honest, but with so much confusion on who is good and who is not in the Big Ten entering the new calendar year, I’ll buy stock in the Illini right now and claim they will win the league’s regular season. I’m not a Nostradamus and can’t tell the future how far they go beyond that (they win it all), but I think they’ll pull through in a crowded Big Ten regular season.
Michael Berns: Illinois finishes second in Big Ten West in Bielema’s first season
We don’t even know the names of all of his assistant coaches, but I’m 100% on board the Bret Bielema train. I was expecting a mass exodus of the current roster to leave, and that still might happen (see Jake Hansen), but as of right now, practically everyone is staying including most if not all of the offensive line. The wild Wild West is wide open, and with some smart ground and pound football, I think the ceiling’s pretty high for our Illini. Purdue and Minnesota already peaked in 2019. Nebraska — does anyone have faith Nebraska can win 7 or 8 games? No. Iowa? Solid per usual but uninspiring. Nern and Wisconsin are the biggest threats, and Bielema’s signature win in 2021 will be a win over the ‘Cats and ending the Hat losing streak.
Alex Orr: Illinois women’s tennis wins the Big Ten
Let me caveat first this by saying “if there is a season.” Otherwise, on paper, this is the best team in program history. They graduate nobody from a decent ‘19-’20 team and get All-American Asuka Kawai back from injury. Add in the two intriguing additions of grad transfer Tiffany Huber and blue-chip recruit Kate Duong, mix in another year of experience for last season’s talented freshman class of Ashley Yeah, Josie Frazier, and Emily Casati, and you might just have a good enough recipe to pass Michigan and take the conference crown.
Matt Rejc: Memorial Stadium upgrades re-surface
Whether the product on the field improves or not, the college football facilities arms race never stops. And with the Illini hockey adventure on hold for the moment, I could see another iteration of the south endzone horseshoe redesign come around. An attractive new rendering could give Bielema some fresh recruiting ammo, and it could re-engage donors who may have been initially intrigued by the hockey idea. It’d be a win-win all the way around, and a smart goal for Whitman to pursue in the wake of the recent successful State Farm Center and Smith Center capital projects.
Quentin Wetzel: Bret Bielema leads Illinois to a 7-5 regular season
I know, I know. This prediction doesn’t sound all that bold. A seven-win regular season is, like, slightly above average for a Big Ten team. But Illinois hasn’t won seven regular season games in FOURTEEN YEARS. We all look back fondly on the Rose Bowl run in 2007, but that wasn’t just the last time Illinois was legitimately good; it was the last time the Illini were even above average. Current incoming freshman had not even started kindergarten yet the last time Illinois had a winning record in the regular season. Now, I don’t know if Bret Bielema will find success at Illinois, but he sure seems like the type of coach that wants to win now. That’s not necessarily a good thing — sometimes overhauling the roster and rebuilding is the right decision. But with lots of returning talent, a favorable schedule, and a coach that wants to win, a winning season could be on the horizon for the Illini in 2021.