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How Illinois can still win in a divisionless Big Ten

Win games and recruit to adapt.

Illinois v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

By now, we all have realized the absurdity of the addition of USC and UCLA brings to the Big Ten.

And, if you have been living under a rock for the last week, read Pleas Honeywood’s column before you proceed.

But as I see it, divisions are gone. There are no leaders and there are no legends. There is no red vs. blue. There are no pods. The Big Ten map flyover commercial will stretch the 2,756 miles from the LA Coliseum to SHI Stadium in New Jersey.

With no divisions, Illinois' path to the top gets exponentially tougher. You no longer need to beat one of Michigan or Ohio State; you need to have a better record than both while also beating USC.

The way I see it here is what the tiers of the Big Ten look like in 2024:

  • S Tier: Michigan, Ohio State, USC
  • A Tier: Penn State, Wisconsin
  • B Tier: Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan State
  • C Tier: Illinois, Purdue, Maryland, UCLA
  • D Tier: Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana
  • F Tier: Rutgers

While Illinois has made strides in the last two years, it gets much harder from here on out.

With Washington and Oregon on the outside looking in, that would add even more teams Illinois would need to climb.

So what does Illinois need to do?

Be Consistent

Even with a tougher schedule, going 8-4 every year is a must to be successful. This means winning at home, no silly losses, and, more importantly, sweeping the non-conference slate. Even then, Illinois is going, at best, 5-4 in the Big Ten every year. Illinois has to beat its rivals in Purdue and Northwestern, as well as every team below its tier.

Illinois needs to also play competitively with every team in the Big Ten. To go 8-4, Illinois must be in a winning position in almost every game.

The Illini can start by winning the final iteration of Big Ten West.

Big Ten Championship - Nebraska v Wisconsin Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Recruit to Adapt

Running behind a fullback, slow-moving offensive lines, and game-manager quarterbacks are gone. So are relying on plugging the hole exclusively on defense. With the addition of west coast teams, a pass-heavy offense will be here to stay. Illinois is starting to build that with Barry Lunney’s offensive scheme. Wisconsin and Purdue have started their own transitions with their recent changes in staff.

On defense, Illinois is almost there already. Illinois has one of the best defensive lines in the nation and is recruiting replacements effectively. The defensive line efficiently gets to the quarterback and finds ways to rush the opponent's QB.

If Illinois is going to compete against the fast-moving offenses of Lincoln Riley and Chip Kelley, players the Illini are recruiting will need to adapt for sustained success in the future.

And the best part? You know Bielema is prepping for that with the new additions to the 2024 class.

Illinois is not only competing and beating its Big Ten Rivals, but Illinois is also getting the same guys that are being recruited to the top programs in the SEC, ACC, and Big 12.

Just since Sunday night:

  • WR Tysean Griffin - Morgan Park - Chicago, IL - Arkansas, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Purdue
  • DL/OL Eddie Tuerk - Lyons Township - La Grange, IL - Northwestern, Iowa, Miami
  • DL Demetrius John - Dublin Coffman - Dublin, OH - Boston College, Vanderbilt, Indiana
  • IOL Zafir Stewart - Imhotep Institute - Philadelphia - Maryland, Penn State, Ole Miss
  • LB Easton Baker - Stansbury - Toole, UT - Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Wisconsin
  • WR Carlos Orr - Gatlinburg Pittman - Gatlinburg, TN - Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, East Carolina

While Illinois did miss out on Luke Williams from Naperville North, there is a lot to be desired in the core of the 2024 class. These guys are built to play Bret Bielema bully ball. Orr is a lanky tall wide receiver. Easton Baker reminds me of Jake Hansen. Zafir Stewart is a beefy 320-pound inside offensive lineman. Eddie Tuerk can play on both sides of the ball. And Tysean Griffin is a stud from Chicago proper and will play alongside Malik Elzy — transforming Illinois WR room as THE landing spot for Chicago Public League receivers.

The best part, Illinois isn't done recruiting the CPL:

If you told me 10 years ago that Illinois competed for the same recruits as Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, and USC, I would have made you do the long walk from Red Lion to PAR — alone.

And hey, if he helps us beat USC in 2024, I’ll have my ballot ready and cast a vote for Lightfoot into the Illinois Hall of Fame.

Training camp can’t come soon enough.

81 days until Toledo.