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What are realistic expectations for Illinois in 2023?

The new season is quickly approaching.

Happy Sunday, Illinois Land!

In less than seven weeks (48 days), Illinois football and its head coach Bret Bielema will get about as oiled as a diesel train, opening the 2023 season bin Champaign against the visiting Toledo Rockets at 6:30 p.m.. Saturday night’s alright for fighting.

No one seems to be talking about it, or Bielema’s team. That’s probably just fine with the third-year coach. Let’s add some perspective, and dare I say it, logic and reasoning. I’ll unpack that in a bit.

Let’s first take a look at Brad Underwood, and add some nuance and context.

It’s no secret that the talk of the town — or the campus — is usually across the street at State Farm Center.

The documentation of this fact is well-known. Transfers coming and going and not having key positions filled, like having no traditional point guard, have become commonplace entertainment for Illinois and Big Ten fans alike.

Underwood & Co. are a common topic of this site, as they should be.

Here’s my breakdown of Underwood through the most recent tourney loss to Arkansas.

Underwood’s predecessor, John Groce, won just north of 41% of his Big Ten games and only made the NCAA Tournament once in five seasons. Groce is at Akron.

In his last four seasons, Underwood has won nearly 69% of his Big Ten games, including two conference titles (we all know it) and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney, despite losing to in-state Loyola Chicago.

The improvement is obvious and overt. It cannot be logically debated, although there are multiple Twitter threads (see what I did there) right now debating this very topic.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan
Point guard? We don’t need one. We already have one. His name is Ty Rodgers and we will rally around him and we will be great. He’s one of the best point guards in the country.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

What he’s been able to do in that building is nothing short of impressive. The decade preceding his arrival fell somewhere between putrid and lackluster, trending toward putrid.

It seems like Underwood has hit a glass ceiling of sorts, and is looking to break through this winter.

I gave the context on Underwood, and his predecessor, to shine light on what Bielema is attempting to do for football.

Bielema is ahead of schedule, and we may need some brake pumping to accurately define what success looks like in 2023.

Bielema has a tough act to follow during year three. He also has no one to blame but himself.

The rebuild for Bielema is nearly identical without context, but is much more difficult in reality. Turning around decades of ineptitude in a Power 5 college football setting remains a nearly impossible task.

The uphill battle rivals that of your grandpa telling you in the kitchen that he had to “walk uphill to school both ways in the snow with no jacket.”

Let’s add some context. Here is Bielema’s predecessor, Lovie Smith’s record at Illinois over nearly five seasons:

  • Overall: 17-39 (.304)
  • Big Ten: 10-33 (.233)

Here is Bielema’s record, after two seasons:

  • Overall: 13-12 (.520)
  • Big Ten: 9-9 (.500)

For more context here is the record of Illinois the previous 10 seasons to Bielema:

  • Overall: 34-72 (.320)
  • Big Ten: 16-60 (.210)

Bielema has improved the overall winning by 62.5% and Big Ten victories by a staggering 138% over the 10-year trend before he arrived..

Getting Illinois football to .500 in two years is potentially more impressive than anything Nick Saban has done. Illinois football was so bad, for so long, that most didn’t realize how low the established and acceptable baseline fell.

You’ve likely heard Bielema say, “I didn’t come here (to Illinois) to go 8-5.” He said that after saying at the end of year 1, “I didn’t come here to go 5-7.”

Witherspoon on stage with Roger Goodell at the 2023 NFL Draft.

Even in his own slumber, Bielema could not have dreamed of the year he had last season, culminating in a zero-star defensive back from Florida, Devon Witherspoon, going No. 5 overall in the NFL Draft to Seattle.

This is not to mention fellow defensive back Jartavius Martin going to Washington (2nd, 47) and safety Sydney Brown going to Philadelphia (3rd, 66). Illinois was the only program in America to have three DBs off the board by pick 66.

Running back Chase Brown went to Cincinnati (5th, 163).

Six other players signed with NFL teams as free agents.

Ten Illinois football players made the jump to the NFL in one year under Bielema, only his second year as the head coach.

The on-the-field product was excellent, which is to be expected with the preceding sentence. The Illini started the season 7-1, before losing three straight (Michigan State, Purdue and at Michigan).

The two home losses stung worse than usual, as the Illini were huge favorites and in line to win the program’s first Big Ten West title. It was not meant to be. Purdue took the West and was ceremoniously blasted by Michigan in Indianapolis.

Walters departs for the Purdue head coaching vacancy.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 05 Michigan State at Illinois
Walters departed Champaign to take the reigns at Purdue. Walters has already signed more than 15 4-star recruits to West Lafayette. Rivalry engaged.
Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Purdue won more than just the West last year. With its head coach Jeff Brohm heading home to Louisville, Purdue poached the hottest young coordinator in college football from Bielema’s staff: Ryan Walters.

With the Big Ten going divisionless in 2024 and beyond, Illinois is slated to play Purdue and Northwestern every year. I expect this Illinois and Purdue rivalry to get heated and intense over the next decade. Bring it on.

The Illini defense lead the United States of America in points per game in 2022, allowing a paltry 12.8 point per contest.

Iowa ranked second at 13.3 each game. This may explain the 9-6 field goal fest won by Illinois early in the season in 2022. Burn the tape of that game, and I digress.

Let’s take a look at the schedule, with division games in bold. My predictions in parentheses.

Here are the home opponents, in order: Toledo (W), Penn State (L), Florida Atlantic (W), Nebraska (W), Wisconsin (L), Indiana (W) and Northwestern (W). Home: (5-2)

Here are the road games, in order: Kansas (W), Purdue (W), Maryland (L) , Minnesota (L) and Iowa (W). Road: (3-2)

2023 Record Prediction: 8-4

Michigan State v Illinois
Bielema has the squad ready for Year 3. Success on the field, and what that looks like, is up for debate. Success is not moving backward.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

This team could do better than 8-4, if Mississippi transfer Luke Altmyer plays to his capabilities and the running back by committee can hold on to the ball.

This team could be much worse than my prediction if the newly formed secondary cannot duplicate their performance from the bowl game against Mississippi State in January. The defensive line will be so good, as will the front seven, that the secondary will not be forced to cover receivers in perpetuity on every play.

Illinois will not have three defensive backs taken in the first 66 picks of the 2024 NFL Draft. That is far from a hot take.

The strongest positional groups for 2023, in order: defensive line, offensive line and outside linebackers. Some national publications have the Illinois Front Seven ranked inside the top five groups nationally.

Please take my scientific poll.


How do you define success for Illinois football in 2023?

This poll is closed

  • 26%
    Getting to a second-consecutive bowl
    (321 votes)
  • 22%
    Compete for the Big Ten West
    (272 votes)
  • 16%
    Win the Big Ten West
    (199 votes)
  • 22%
    Win at least 8 games
    (271 votes)
  • 11%
    Win 9+ games
    (138 votes)
1201 votes total Vote Now

Any way you slice it, Bielema has this thing rolling better than anyone has in a long time, possibly multiple decades.

Illinois is going to be good at football. We all know it. It’s the season we’ve been waiting for, low these many years.

This is Illinois football.