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TCR Staff Predictions: 2021 Illinois Football Season

Could Illinois make a bowl game this year?

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Stephen Cohn: 4-8 (2-7 Big Ten)

How much should we really expect in year one from Bret Bielema? You can say we should expect the world, but that’s not really fair considering the monumental undertaking Bielema is currently undertaking. Yes, I understand there’s a ton of talent returning from last year’s team, but implementing a new system in a still kinda-weird offseason seems like a bit of a challenge.

If there’s not a bowl win in year two I’ll be concerned, but just keep your head above water this year and please don’t give up 63 points in any game.

Tristen Kissack: 6-7 (3-6 Big Ten)

I won’t lie, I wasn’t exactly enthused with the Bielema hire. But what I do believe is that Bret will significantly raise the floor of the program. Illinois now has a more than competent head coach in the Big Ten, who’s already proving he can have some success on the recruiting trail. The offensive is experienced and loaded with weapons. If the defense can do enough to keep things close, I think this team will win just as many games as it loses. It’s back to a bowl game for Bret in his first year as an Illini!

Manjesh Mogallapalli: 7-6 (3-6) + Bowl win

Bielema will take the Illini bowling once again after missing out last season. We should start off 3-0 winning against Nebraska, UTSA, and Virginia then lose 4 of the next 5 with Charlotte being the only win during that stretch. We should be 4-4 going into the Rutgers game, which we will win to put us one win away from a bowl game. We will drop the next two games against Iowa and Minnesota. This would make the final game against Northwestern a must win for bowl eligibility, which we will pull off, returning the Land of Lincoln trophy back to its rightful home in Champaign. Riding that high, I believe Illinois will get a long awaited bowl win and set the path for future success in upcoming seasons under Bielema.

Best Offensive Player: Brandon Peters

Best Defensive Player: Jake Hansen

Breakout Player: Isaiah Williams

Matt Rejc: 3-9 (1-8)

This season will be all about change and learning, but it very likely won’t be about winning much. In Tim Beckman’s first season in 2012, Illini fans looked on in frustration as an experienced roster loaded with NFL talent (Ted Karras, Akeem Spence, Matt LaCosse, Justin Hardee, and others) struggled to grasp the new schemes on offense and defense, and a string of embarrassing nationally televised losses ensued en route to a 2-10 season. Lovie Smith’s first few years were also fraught with confusion, as he took over a significantly less talented roster in 2016, and struggled along through 2017 with an anemic offense that eventually culminated into the infamous blowout loss at home against Iowa in 2018. Change is extremely hard in college football, which is why many of the best programs avoid it at all costs even when fanbases clamor for it (i.e. Ferentz at Iowa). As for 2021, I see Illinois defeating UTSA and Charlotte, then maybe sneaking away with a conference win against Rutgers, which could be one of our last wins against the Scarlet Knights for a long time at the rate they’re recruiting.

Mihir Chavan: 7-6 (4-5), Beat Cal in Redbox Bowl

Winnable Games: vs. UTSA, vs. Charlotte, vs. Rutgers, vs. Northwestern, @Purdue

Can Compete Games: vs. Nebraska, vs. Maryland, @Minnesota, @Virginia

Most Likely to Lose: vs. Wisconsin, @Penn State, @Iowa

We win our winnable games and go 1-3 in the Can Compete. The fixable errors that cost us games at Northwestern should be fixed. The stale cover-2 is gone. The run game got an upgrade in coaching. The defense got a new brand. The biggest problem in the last few years was Illinois getting in its own way and stalling out a drive with an offside or penalty call. I firmly believe that was due to the lack of coaching and not the lack of coachability. With Bielema in firm control of the team, we don’t lose the winnable games and instead we win the games everybody thinks we lose.

Jeff Horwitz: 4-8 (2-7)

This is the base case. Illinois could get lucky and win a couple games early against weaker opponents, or they could fall flat on their face. Forget Wisconsin and Iowa - do we really think they can beat Minnesota or Northwestern? I see five certain losses, and only one certain win (Charlotte). Illinois simply doesn’t have the recruits that other teams in the Big Ten get. We get excited when the Illini land a solid three-star recruit from Florida, but other Big Ten teams scoff at that. Add that to the change in systems from Lovie to Bret, and it’ll be another tough season.

Drew Pastorek: 5-7 (3-6)

I believe Illinois wins each of its two non-con home games (UTSA, Charlotte) and picks up Ws against Purdue, Maryland & Rutgers during B1G play. It’s not fair to expect a bowl berth in Bret Bielema’s first season, though we should expect to see a competent, physical, disciplined football team. There is still a significant talent gap between the Illini and most of the top teams in the Big Ten. A veteran o-line and an experienced quarterback room should help to keep the Illini competitive, but I’m not yet sure that a scheme change alone will fix a defense that ceded 467 yards and almost 35 points per game last season.

Quentin Wetzel: 4-8 (2-7)

It’s hard to understate just how much uncertainty there is about how good Illinois will be. For starters, COVID made for a tremendously weird season last year, so I don’t think last season’s poor performance tells us much about what to expect this year. And the talent level is different across college football this year too. COVID allowed last year’s seniors to return for one more season, and no team brought back more super seniors than Illinois’ 22. Oh, and if you haven’t heard, Illinois got a new head coach. All of these factors make for a ridiculous amount of uncertainty, so honestly, anything from 2-10 to 7-5 wouldn’t shock me. I don’t have that hard of a time envisioning the experience of the super seniors combined with the new (and improved?) coaching staff translating into 7 wins. After all, this is largely the same roster that made a bowl game two years ago, as weird as that feels. But it’s also more than possible that the roster never grasps Bret Bielema’s new schemes and fails to win a single conference game. Even good coaches often struggle in year one of a new job. So I’ll settle right in the middle at 4-8. But I really have no idea.