That’s the over/under for the Fighting Illini football team this season.
Vegas is only a lukewarm believer in what Josh Whitman and Bret Bielema have built for this season.
I mention Josh Whitman in the roster-building process because Illinois went to the wall to retain significant players through NIL. If the man in charge isn’t pulling the right levers, that NIL rocket never leaves the space station.
To the majority of people outside of the Illini bubble, 6.5 seems like a reasonable estimate. It looks like a program that has won 13 games in two seasons under Bret Bielema. It averages out his first two seasons and presumes a modicum of consistency. I suppose that’s not super disrespectful.
But those of us on the “inside” know better. 6.5 wins is a modest expectation. It’s too conservative. Most fans I’ve spoken to see this as an 8-9 win team. And while a repeat of last season would be a solid result, this team has the potential to do more.
Luke Altmyer may be that dude.
Look, we don’t know how good Luke can be. But we know he was quite a high-end prospect coming out of Starkville, Mississippi. We have such little film on him, so it’s hard to paint a full picture of him based on his SEC/bowl game reps.
Betting on prospect pedigree can be risky. Brandon Peters, for all of his talent, never really “popped” to the level of his prospect status. Remember, Peters was the first prep quarterback signed by Jim Harbaugh upon his arrival in Ann Arbor. I suppose that makes him the answer to a really niche trivia question.
Tommy DeVito was also a four-star prep prospect coming out of New Jersey. He had some good moments playing for former Eastern Illinois coach Dino Babers at Syracuse. He largely looked the part of a four-star prospect, but he didn’t make a true star turn until he came to Illinois.
His efficiency in Champaign was partly responsible for him landing him in camp with the New York Giants.
Peters was the No. 34 prospect and No. 3 quarterback in his class according to 247. DeVito was ranked at No. 341 overall and the No. 13 Pro-Style QB in his class.
Well, he comes in somewhere in between as the No. 196 overall and No. 21 QB in the class of 2021.
All three players transferred to Illinois. The Illini rarely swim in the deep end of the prep quarterback recruiting waters. But they have acted as a weigh station for prospects looking to “pop.”
It didn’t work for Peters. It may wind up working for DeVito. But much like Peters, Altmyer has three years to put Big Ten film on the record and lead the Illini football renaissance.
His teammates have been raving about his arm talent.
More Isaiah Williams downfield? Thank you, sir. May I have another?
More looks for Pat Bryant on deep routes? I’ll take all of those.
More opportunities for Kenari Wilcher to get behind the secondary from the slot? You had me at hello.
This team will go as far as Luke Altmyer is prepared to take it. And by all accounts, the former University of Mississippi gunslinger is up for the challenge.
Gabe Jacas may have another gear to unlock.
*insert sweating Jordan Peele GIF*
Malik Elzy might be the biggest mutant freak pass-catcher Illinois has had since the Zook years.
Arrelious Benn was one of the most exciting prospects in Illinois history. He was a colossal recruiting win for Mike Locksley and Ron Zook, and went on to have a great career (save an injury-packed junior year) with some of the most exciting Illinois teams of the modern era. He was a five-star beast from the DC area whose arrival in Champaign marked a true arrival onto the national stage.
Hey, Malik Elzy, how ya doin’?
No, he’s not a five-star super recruit like Benn. But with Barry Lunney’s offense, there is room for Elzy to become another Zakhari Franklin from a productivity standpoint.
And you’d be right to ask, “but will that happen this season?
I’m not predicting it. But man, the talent for a major breakout is there. The physical readiness is obvious. And reports out of camp raved about his intellectual maturity, confidence, and route-running ability.
And the crazy thing is that Illinois already has the uber-talented Pat Bryant ahead of Elzy on the depth chart. Pat is not likely to be benched early. He also isn’t likely to play so poorly that he loses so many reps that he becomes an insignificant factor in the offense.
But Elzy will be in the two-deep and he will find his way onto the field. By the end of the season, I predict he will be making a push for all-freshman status in the conference.
Malik Elzy may not be the only mutant freak freshman to make an immediate impact.
Malik Elzy played in the Under Armour All-American game this past year. He committed to the Illini during the game, although rumor has it he committed to the staff weeks prior.
But he wasn’t the only Illinois player participating in that game.
Kicker David Olano from Naperville was an All-American placekicker. He looks like a perfect kicker to reboot the Kicker U mantra that Illini fans placed on the squad years ago.
He routinely makes long kicks with seemingly minimal effort. The ex-soccer player arrived in Champaign with advanced technique and a scholarship. Skill position players rarely receive scholarships starting as true freshmen, but to get a kicker of this caliber, Bielema and Robby Discher paid the appropriate price.
Everybody likes Caleb Griffin. He is one of the best athletes on a super athletic team. Stories of his basketball prowess are legendary. He’s also a Central Illinois kid from Danville.
But there is real competition. Perhaps both will split duties. Maybe Olano will handle kickoffs and deeper kicks. Maybe Caleb will handle some of the punting duties. There are a lot of questions, but it is clear that Olano has enough talent to make a strong impact in his first collegiate season.
Man, there are a lot of recent recruits who haven’t been able to make an impact and are poised to contribute.
The depth improvements have been remarkable since Bret Bielema and this staff took over. It’s not only the starters who are drawing high praise. But the roster has increased competition and end-to-end talent. That’s why the losses in the secondary and backfield won’t cripple the 2023 Illinois football squad.
I’ll “quickly” run through a few names who are experienced in the system but will almost be viewed as true freshmen with their first true impact in meaningful games
The massive running back could see more time this season. Reggie Love and Josh McCray have both flashed major talent but have been slowed by injuries. Anderson has tremendous receiving ability and is a perfect skill/power hybrid for third-down situations. He could also make a solid secondary red zone hammer.
He was a big recruiting win for George McDonald. After suffering a serious injury in camp last season, the highly skilled, versatile pass-catcher could easily join Pat Bryant, Casey Washington, Isaiah Williams, and Malik Elzy in the receiver rotation. He could immediately fit in as a Washington-esque chain mover.
The Manteno native could be thrust into a starting role at right tackle or potentially right guard. Bart Miller has done an amazing job coaching the offensive line room, and Gesky is a major part of Miller’s impact on the roster. Sure, there are already enough worries about the experience on the O-Line at center. But with the all-conference veteran presence of Adams, Pearl, and Crisler, this Illinois line can continue to open up running lanes and keep Luke Altmyer upright.
Badie was another power five recruiting victory for the Illini. And now he gets to play for legend-in-the-making Charlie Bullen. Yes, Gabe Jacas and Seth Coleman will be holding the staring spots down. And we know Alec Bryant and Ezekiel Holmes project as at least solid depth. But Oswego alum Badie is an uber-talent who looks healthy this season. He could find his way onto the field early as another ears-pinned-back QB assassin.
In the end, this Illini roster has as much talent as it has in decades. While the recruiting classes don’t necessarily rank as high as similar schools, the talent output is starting to match more established rivals.
Injuries won’t be nearly as panic-inducing as in past years.*
*Having said that, please protect Luke at all costs. Thanks.*