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Five questions for Illinois & Bret Bielema to answer this offseason

The new era of the Big Ten is here.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Minnesota Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The college football season ended Monday night. On to the 2024 season, and the big questions we have for Illinois this offseason.

5. Who replaces Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph?

Johnny Newton has the chance to become Illinois’ second top-10 draft pick in as many years. To no one's surprise, Newton and Randolph affected opposing lines enough to change the game. We all know the impact an injury-riddled Randolph and the absence of Newton had on the defensive line in the Wisconsin game, so how does Illinois replace a key part of its 2023 defense.

Sure, there will be some growing pains, but Illinois has retooled quite well on the defensive side. Illinois added transfers Enyce Sledge from Auburn and Anthony Johnson from Youngstown State. Sledge didn’t see much playing time as a freshman at Auburn but was a top-50 recruit out of Louisiana in 2022. Johnson had 25 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and 4 sacks in 2022. Illinois also picked up 3 star edge Josiah Knight and Hutchinson C.C. Edge Daniel Brown. Brown was the highest ranked outside linebacker out of JUCO.

Knight has a high upside but will still be a development piece in 2024. It should be interesting how Sledge, Johnson, and Brown slot into the Illini front 7 and compete with the players currently on the roster.

4. Can Aaron Henry patch the holes on the defense?

The transition from Ryan Walters to Henry was all but rosy. The Illini lost their secondary after 2022 and will lose its most impactful players on its front seven in 2023. The players are one end of the spectrum but the other side is scheme. Illinois and Purdue were the worst performing defenses on most metrics in the Big Ten. It is possible that other teams have figured out the base Walters defense and after playing that same style of defense for 3 years something needs to change.

This is probably the biggest question of the off season, something that we really won’t be able to see until Illinois kicks off against an unnamed opponent on Aug. 31. We should see bits and pieces in the spring game and Illinois will have key players back in the secondary and hopefully a healthy Matthew Bailey.

3. Can Luke Altmyer bounce back?

Believe it or not, Altmyer had the fourth-highest yards per game in the Big Ten, eighth-most touchdowns, and fifth-highest passer rating. The hot hand was Paddock in the last four games of the season, but Altmyer’s first year was nothing but stellar for Illinois. Include Paddock and Illinois had the third-best passing attack in the Big Ten, and that should continue into 2024.

There are two things that would hinder Altmyer’s rise in the rankings in 2024: the wide receivers and a retooled offensive line. Pat Bryant would be the only returning receiver over 500 yards and will need to be more consistent in 2024. I need to dive a bit deeper into the offensive line (which can be a blog of its own) because outside of Josh Kreutz there are a lot of questions marks for guards and tackles. Luckily, the line looks deeper but lacks experience. More on that later.

2. How does Illinois compete in the new Big Ten?

Both teams from the national championship Monday night — Washington and Michigan — will be in the Big Ten in 2024. I think I will be the first to say it, but the Big Ten is now THE premier football conference, beating out the SEC. And rising tides raise all ships.

In the first year of this transition, Illinois should be able to compete with 50% of the new league. We are an incredibly average program and should be able to stay incredibly average. If you take out the premier teams — Washington, Michigan, Ohio State, and Oregon — Illinois has beaten almost every team in the last three years (Purdue and Michigan State stand out).

Illinois wasn’t the tough-smart-dependable team we all expected last year and that cannot continue into 2024. There also needs to be that gritty Illinois vs. The World mentality that this team needs to adopt. The days of controlling the clock and winning the Big Ten West are gone. Illinois will be competing with the big boys every week and need to act like it’s been there before.

1. The way-too-early-kool-aid-prediction for 2024.

  • Week 1 - Group of Five opponent - Win
  • Week 2 - vs. Kansas - Win
  • Week 3 - vs. Central Michigan (Homecoming) - Win
  • Week 4 - @ Nebraska - Win
  • Week 5 - @ Penn State - Loss
  • Week 6 - BYE
  • Week 7 - vs. Purdue - Win
  • Week 8 - vs. Michigan - Loss
  • Week 9 - @ Oregon - Loss
  • Week 10 - vs. Minnesota - Win
  • Week 12 - vs. Michigan State - Win
  • Week 13 - @ Rutgers - Loss
  • Week 14 - @ Northwestern - Win

Illinois 8-4 and back to the Reliaquest Bowl.