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The Big Ten West is getting competitive: Illinois has to keep pace

Illinois lost three games it should have won, and those losses will be killers in the future.

Michigan State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

In 1996, legendary Long island-based hip hop trio De La Soul released the classic album Stakes Is High. The album is seen by many fans of a certain vintage as the exclamation point that signaled the end of hip hop’s golden era. It capitalized on the critical backlash to emerging commercialism of hip hop music as a product and the desire of hip hop-obsessed purists to take one last stand against shiny suit rap.

The album peaked at No. 13 on the US Billboard 200. Ironically, Stakes Is High couldn’t match the success of their platinum debut album 3 Feet High and Rising.

So what does any of this have to do with Illini football?

Well, the stakes couldn’t possibly be higher for the Illini’s next phase of staff and roster construction. And a critically acclaimed season that hardcore fans appreciate (i.e. 2022) won’t be enough to sustain enthusiasm of a rabid fanbase during the emerging commercialization (new clubs, new coaches, new stadiums) of the Big Ten.

So, what exactly is changing that has raised the stakes?

Luke Fickell has arrived in the Big Ten West.

Luke Fickell becoming a Big Ten head coach seemed inevitable. He has the ideal resume.

  • He grew up in Ohio and played his college football at Ohio State.
  • He joined Jim Tressel’s staff at Ohio State in 2002.
  • He took over as interim coach at Ohio State after Tressel’s suspension and subsequent resignation.
  • He achieved a record of 57-18 as head coach of the University of Cincinnati.

He’s had multiple opportunities to leave the Bearcats over the past several years. He even turned down another Big Ten Program when he passed on the Michigan State job that eventually went to Mel Tucker.

But not only is Fickell coming into the Big Ten as a head coach, but he has jettisoned the East division completely for a role with a prominent Big Ten West program. He will be stepping into the role Jim Leonhard seemed to embrace.

Fickell has a track record of building tremendous defenses. His 3-3-5 scheme has been extraordinarily effective and helped the program transcend Group of Five status and earn an invitation to the Big 12. His last defensive coordinator, Marcus Freeman, is now the head coach at the University of Notre Dame. Fickell has essentially done what many believe Jim Leonhard could have done. But his track record speaks for itself.

Luke Fickell is a scary face to see on the opposite sidelines for the next several years.

And speaking of scary presences in red and white whom I don’t want to see on the opposite sidelines…

Matt Rhule has returned to the college ranks.

And he just had to do it in the B1G West, didn’t he?

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way. Yes, his tenure in Carolina didn’t end well. The offensive guru couldn’t get the quarterback position right, and the results on the field demonstrate this level of organizational failure. But his record as a college coach speaks for itself.

In Illini Nation, we always say we’re a basketball school. And while we take huge pride in our hoops program, we also have a storied history as a football program, Big Ten facilities, and an excellent campus environment.

Those are several factors Temple University doesn’t have. It’s in the heart of North Philadelphia, and it’s almost exclusively known for the John Chaney classic Temple hoops squads that played an aggressive 2-3 zone. Also, they’re known for this amazing Chaney confrontation with a certain famous coach.

The point here is that Matt Rhule achieved back-to-back 10-win seasons in Philly. He parlayed that success into the head job at Baylor. He helped dig the downtrodden program out of the mess fomented by Art Briles’ lack of institutional control. He was plucked by the NFL after an 11-3 season in Waco.

And now, he’s heading to Lincoln. Much like Fickell in Madison, this appears to be a slam dunk hire.

When Scott Frost was relieved of his duties, I had some…strong opinions.

Matt Rhule exceeded my realistic expectation of a coach they would wind up hiring at Nebraska. Trev Alberts appears to have targeted and closed the kind of coach to turn Nebraska into a competitive program. So there is a chance that we won’t have Nebraska to kick around anymore.

Clearly, these hires raise the stakes. So what can the Illini do to keep pace?

1. Recruit to beat your competition. Matt Rhule is one of the most respected offensive minds in the business. He will be joined in the Big Ten by Chip Kelly and Lincoln Riley in 2024. These are three elite offensive coaches. These are coaches who coach uptempo schemes with speed to burn all over the field. So Illinois can’t just try to keep up with teams in the Iowa mold that raised Coach Bielema. Now, the Illini truly have to become a national recruiting force. The rekindling of in-state relationships has been a great story, and it has certainly added some necessary talent to the roster.

Wyoming v Illinois Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

But you’re competing with programs who get the top kids from southern California. You’re competing with Matt Rhule who just coached Christian McCaffrey. So now, Illinois has to use its current momentum to expand the Illini footprint. It’s nice to have the Midwest, Florida, and New Jersey. But that won’t be enough to sustain competitive seasons. This year, Illinois lost several winnable games. In the future Big Ten (West), leaving those wins on the table won’t lead to 8-4; they’ll lead to missing bowl games.

Jyaire Hill and Malik Elzy are the kinds of athletes that coaches like Lincoln Riley and Jim Harbaugh sign. They are the immediate impact-level dudes that playoff competitors fill their roster with. Right now, for the Illini, they would be grand slam gets. But moving forward, they have to become commonplace acquisitions.

2. Be nimble in your coaching staff hires. This staff has done an excellent job thus far. Illinois has a winning overall record since Bret Bielema has taken over the program. So I’m not suggesting getting rid of any member of this staff. In fact, I’m saying that Broyles Award Finalist Ryan Walters may be leaving Illinois for a head coaching job. Ryan and his father both played football at the University of Colorado, and their interest in Walters for their vacant head coaching position may mean the Illini need to replace their defensive coordinator.

Michigan State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Of course, Colorado could hire an NFL Hall of Fame cornerback as its next head coach.

But if Walters does leave, there is an obvious in-house choice to take over: Kevin Kane. The former SMU defensive coordinator has deep recruiting ties in the Midwest and has done an amazing job coaching up the Illini outside linebackers. But that’s not the only card Bielema could play.

I’m not trying to rumor monger or get anyone excited about a highly improbable event, but what if Jim Leonhard doesn’t land another head coaching position? Would Coach Bielema reach out to his former defensive back? That would be a massive hire for the Illini.

3. Revel in the schadenfreude. Right now, a lot of programs are going through coaching upheaval. So this is the time to pounce on their decommitments. Right now, Roderick Pierce and Jamel Howard are in-state decommits from Wisconsin’s class of 2023. They both play interior defensive line, which is one of the most important positions left on the Illini board. The coach to whom they committed (Paul Chryst) is now two coaches ago. And while Michigan is sniffing around, these are two recruitments the Illini have to place a premium on closing.

As the coaching carousel turns, so will the cycle of decommitments leading to December’s early signing period. This is the time for the Illini coaching staff to demonstrate its ability to flip blue chip prospects and evolve beyond late scouting plays.

4. Mine the portal. Coach Bret Bielema has stated before that players from the state of Illinois who would like to come back home via the transfer portal will be welcomed with open arms. It is time for the Illini to supplement their developmental depth for next season with a mix of experienced players and high-end prospects buried on other depth charts. Josh Imatorbhebhe and Oluwole Betiku made an immediate impact in Champaign after not lighting the world on fire at USC. Perhaps there are some opportunities for similar buy-low scenarios this offseason. But don’t forget all of the players who have been productive in college and are looking for bigger opportunities.

Rutgers v Illinois Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Illinois can offer immediate playing time for transfers in the secondary, on the defensive line, at running back, and at quarterback. Illinois has to be selective, but when the staff identifies their guys, it’s time to be as aggressive in closing as they have ever been. Use the University’s NIL depth to present irrefutable opportunities to the kinds of transfers who can keep the program riding high while Bielema’s young classes develop and his future classes take new shape.

5. Re-recruit your roster. A lot of potential NFL and portal departures could gut the roster’s depth if Illinois doesn’t fill its roster’s holes. Sometimes the answer is in front of your face. It’s Kendall Smith coming back this season. It’s Owen Carney coming back last season. Players like Keith Randolph and Isaiah Adams could be borderline draft picks this year, but may work their way into day two of the 2024 draft with another good season in Champaign.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 05 Michigan State at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Gabe Jacas will undoubtedly receive offers from other, larger programs. Kevin Kane and Bret Bielema have to retain him. He’s the foundation of the defense’s future, and a program at Illinois’ level can’t afford to lose him.

The Illini’s solid receiving corps of Casey Washington, Pat Bryant, Brian Hightower, and Isaiah Williams may all be back. So it will be up to George McDonald, Barry Lunney, and Bret Bielema to preserve the depth provided by a slew of young, recently-recruited studs. Shawn Miller, Hank Beatty, and Eian Pugh are foundational to the long-term future of the offense in the way that Jacas, Matthew Bailey, Kenenna Odeluga, and Jared Badie are for the defense.