It isn’t completely fair to pin a coach’s first season on them. Mostly, they’re just given the roster that they’re given. That said, Lovie Smith’s first season (2016) was bad, and it started with a bad non-conference slate, in which the Illini went 1-2.
Illinois’s non-conference schedule saw them beat FCS Murray State 52-3, lose to North Carolina 48-23, and lose to Western Michigan 34-10. Looking back, the losses to UNC and Western Michigan are more painful for who was on those teams rather than the losses themselves.
The UNC quarterback who beat the Illini? Mitchell Trubisky. The Western Michigan head coach who beat the Illini? PJ Fleck.
The Illini started strong against UNC, going up 14-7. It was a warm September night, and I remember feeling optimistic about Lovie. After Illinois’s second touchdown, they were outscored 41-9. Mitch had a stat line of 307 yards from scrimmage, 2 passing TDs, and 2 rushing TDs with no turnovers. It was embarrassing, and UNC went 8-5 that year.
As a Bears fan, it pains me that Ryan Pace might have looked at film from that game when he drafted Mitch. There’s some sort of cosmic justice in UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky trouncing head coach Lovie Smith of the Fighting Illini.
As for PJ and Western Michigan, they were actually pretty good that year. They went 13-1, beating Northwestern and Northern Illinois. Their only defeat was against Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl, which they lost 24-16. Still, the Illini lost to WMU 34-10 at home, and that shouldn’t have happened.
In his first year, Bret Bielema won’t get a cupcake FCS team like Murray State, but he also won’t get a team as good as Western Michigan was in 2016. Illinois’ non-conference schedule this year features two Conference USA squads in UTSA and UNC-Charlotte.
The odds for the game against Charlotte haven’t opened yet, but Illinois is only favored by 6.5 points against UTSA. This will be a good test for Bret. If he’s pulling his weight, the Illini should win this game by 10 to 14 points. If the Illini win either of these games by less than a touchdown — or lose — it’ll be a bad sign for Bret.
Similarly to Lovie’s first season, Illinois also plays a middle of the pack ACC team this year in Virginia. It won’t be fair to expect the Illini to win at Virginia. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall is going into his sixth season, and he’ll be under much more pressure than Bielema. At the same time, Bielema can’t afford to lose this game 48-23 like Lovie did to UNC.
If Bret can handle Charlotte and UTSA and keep the Virginia game close — or win — it’ll be a successful start to his Illinois career. If the Illini go 3-0, they’ll be streaking the lawn.