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10 reasons to be excited for Illinois football in 2023

If this season is more than a blip, what happens next matters more.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 02 ReliaQuest Bowl Photo by Chris Leduc/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Eight wins.

That’s the most wins since 2007, Second-most wins since 2001, and only the 10th season in the last 100 years with eight or more wins. So let’s cut the crap about missed wins, terrible refs, or Barry Lunney not calling the offense to our expectations. This season is probably a once-a-generation type of season, and the excitement it brought is the best in the last two decades.

At the end of the season, fan morale is up, the coaching staff is competent, and most importantly, Illinois has the players to stay competitive. If I still lived in Chicago, this is the first season that I would already be trying to talk to the ticket office about buying season tickets — a first for me since I last bought my Block I student tickets for the 2015 season.

Here are my way-too-early top ten reasons to be excited for 2023.

10. Aaron Henry is competent. That defense looked competent. Even though the defense had no sacks against a much beefier Mississippi State o-line, the defense held a more physical SEC team to 3 points for most of the game. I’m OK with that loss at the end. Four freshmen started on the defense: Safety Matthew Bailey, DB Xavier Scott, DB Tyler Strain, and stud OLB Gabe Jacas. Only Jacas had meaningful full playing time during the season, and late-game mistakes are best to happen in a game that doesn't matter.

9. That goes without saying, even after losing Sydney Brown and Devon Witherspoon, I am not worried about our secondary. We saw a bit of Xavier Scott and Matthew Bailey in the regular season. After earning those starting spots, Scott channeled his inner Witherspoon and led the team in tackles, and Bailey had his third interception on the season. I’ll say this now, but I am a helluva lot less worried about our secondary after Monday’s game.

NCAA Football: ReliaQuest Bowl-Illinois at Mississippi State Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

8. Luke Altmyer will bring an edge and elevate Tommy DeVito’s QB play. Tommy did fine this whole season. That's what was expected of him. I said this at the beginning of the season: Tommy will be an average Big Ten QB. What nobody could predict, Tommy brought that spunk and swagger that is needed at the QB position. These are intangibles in the college quarterback world. Altmyer will hopefully be that guy, but bring in better chunk-play ability.

7. Reggie Love and Josh McCray are the 1-2 punch we expected. When they were in, they delivered. The offensive line and the play calls against a much bigger SEC team were suspect. More on the offense on a later day. (I’m trying to stay positive.) And if they don't work out, well, we’ll have two freshman 4-stars.

6. George McDonald’s room will have depth, and the WR battles will be exciting to watch. Hightower and Bryant were notably absent from the stat sheet on Monday, but Isaiah Williams and Casey Washington had career days. Freshman 4-star receiver Shawn Miller should be back from injury and compete alongside freshmen Hand Beatty, Eian Pugh, and Ashton Hollins. If Elzy commits, that adds another downfield threat.

ReliaQuest Bowl - Mississippi State v Illinois Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

5. Illinois fans are alive again. I could hear it on TV, but Illinois fans tried their best to drown out the cowbells. But it’s more than just that. I live 2,500 miles away in Seattle and have been for the last two years. This is the first season since moving that the Seattle Illini club has had watch parties, even for a Monday 9 a.m. kickoff for the ReliaQuest Bowl.

4. Rankings don’t matter, and the way Bielema recruits gives us game-ready players in a year. Jacas, Bailey, Scott, Strain, Beatty, TeRah Edwards, Kenenna Odeluga, are all freshmen and will compete for starting spots next season. That depth Bielema was talking about last year, well, it’s now here.

3. High-quality trench play will continue. I am not expecting Illinois to compete with the SEC. But Illinois can sure compete in the Big Ten. We saw it this year, and we saw it for most of the game on Monday. Illinois needs to start putting the game away early instead of losing it in the last five minutes, as it did four times this season.

2. Illinois shows it can keep up with the best. Illinois is still 0-6 against the SEC (The Illini have time to avenge that starting 2026 when it plays its 8-game Braggin’ Rights series against Mizzou). But for the most part, Illinois kept up with CFP semifinalist Michigan and beat Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. Go 8-5 every year for the next ten years, and Bielema will get a statue in front of Memorial Stadium.

1. Bret Bielema is the guy to keep this train rolling.

NCAA Football: ReliaQuest Bowl-Illinois at Mississippi State Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Days till Toledo: 241