Last season, the Illinois Fighting Illini football team was one of the most experienced units in recent memory, with upperclassmen starters at nearly every position on both sides of the ball. For many decades, it’s been a rule of thumb in college football that teams replacing many experienced starters are almost destined to struggle the next season as former backups ease into starting roles.
We most recently saw this adage play out when young Illini teams struggled in 2013 and 2017. Much like the current Illini team, the 2013 and 2017 teams took place during Beckman and Lovie’s second seasons respectively, and both had seen many of the experienced players from the previous regime graduate. Bret Bielema finds himself in a similar situation in 2022, but with key advantages that his predecessors lacked: the transfer portal and Covid year flexibilities.
Back in 2017, Lovie was forced to use a combination of Jeff George Jr. and Cam Thomas at the quarterback position since Wes Lunt had graduated; Chayce Crouch was injured; and all of Bill Cubit’s other quarterbacks had transferred out.
But this season, Bielema was able to bring in Tommy Devito from Syracuse to battle Artur Sitkowski for the starting quarterback role. It might not be possible to have two legitimate Power 5 starters on the roster without the ease of the transfer portal, which could have forced Bielema to turn to a young Samari Collier or Division II transfer Ryan Johnson.
The ability to bring in potential starters like Devito, Sitkowski, Calvin Hart Jr., Terah Edwards and Alec Bryant, among others, changes the expectations surrounding this team by significantly mitigating the dropoff from Lovie’s massive 2017 recruiting class. The Covid year flexibility also helps considerably, by allowing key starters and contributors like Alex Palczewski, Kendall Smith, and others to return and bring experience to a young roster.
Without the Transfer Portal and Covid year flexibilities, I would have very low expectations for this upcoming year. But things being as they are, I’m very much looking forward to the Illini remaining competitive in 2022.