The Lovie Smith experiment at Illinois has not gone to plan, with a 9-27 record in the three years since the former NFL head coach took over. Recruiting and his name-value has bought him some time, but after an up-and-down (at best) 4-8 year in 2018, Smith might need to make a bowl this year to feel good about keeping his job.
Dual-threat QB AJ Bush was exciting last year heading the offense for the Illini, but with him graduated and likely replacement MJ Rivers transferring out, the Illini added Michigan transfer Brandon Peters and brought in one of the best recruits in recent history, dual-threat four-star Isaiah Williams. Starting a true freshman is risky, but he fits the scheme much better.
Reggie Corbin (8.5!! yards per carry) returns at running back along with backup Mike Epstein (6.8!). Four of the top five are back in the receiving game in a group led by deep threat Dominic Stampley (16.4 YPC) and red zone weapon Ricky Smalling (five touchdowns). The Illini add in Trevon Sidney from USC out wide along with an Alabama transfer at gaurd, Richi Petitbon. Four other starters return on the line to clear holes for the talented duo at RB. As long as one of the QB options works out, I think this could be a legitimately great offense.
The Illini defense was extremely young last year and really struggled (7.0 yards per play!) but should improve with the added experience and a few transfers coming in like USC end Oluwole Betiku and Washington MLB Milo Eifler.
Jake Hansen is the top returner on the defense after 95 tackles (7.5 for loss) last year, and the Illini also bring back incredible edge threat Bobby Roundtree (7.5 sacks, five TFL) and add a four-star freshman corner to an experienced secondary. There were parts of this unit that really struggled last year due to inexperience, but I think they mature over the offseason and the defense improves.
My model has the Illini projected 81st this year and that, to me, feels quite low. The defense was horrid last year but experience matters and I expect a lot of the same guys who struggled last year to improve in 2019. The path back to a bowl might be tough playing in the loaded Big Ten West where no win will be easy, but I don’t think it’s out of the question.
|at michigan state
Average Projected Record: 5.2 wins, 6.8 losses (2.8 wins, 6.2 losses)