Football has finally arrived, and while the pros don’t start until next weekend, college does. The Fighting Illini made some very drastic changes in the offseason. First, they hired former Illini tight end Josh Whitman to be the athletic director. Then, Whitman shocked the Big Ten with his hire of former Bears and Bucs coach Lovie Smith. Lovie has definitely brought the anticipation and hype up here at Illinois, and now, we get to see what he’s got in Big Ten football. Let’s dive in to the preview.
Players to Watch
Offensive MVP: Ke’Shawn Vaughn, RB
With Lovie Smith taking over, I think you will see a lot of what he implemented in his NFL coaching career. Illinois will run the ball to control the game and play very tough defense. As for running the ball, Smith has inherited a running back destined to have a breakout season. Vaughn has sat in Josh Ferguson’s shadow for a season, and now has a chance to prove how good he really is. If you go back to the tape of the Purdue game last season, you can see the power and speed combination that Vaughn brings to the table. With a healthy returning group on the offensive line, Vaughn looks ready to take on the load that comes with being a lead back. His breakout will also take pressure off of quarterback Wes Lunt, who threw, on average, around 40 times a game last season.
Defensive MVP: Dawuane Smoot, DE
This feels like an absolute no brainer. Smoot was one of the best pass rushers in the Big Ten last season, but because of guys like Joey Bosa, Shilique Calhoun, and teammate Jihad Ward, Smoot flew way under the radar. He brought enormous amounts of pressure last season off the edge, posting seven sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. I expect those numbers to rise purely based on the fact that Lovie will know how to emphasize his strengths in the defensive scheme. A loaded defensive line will also help him out, as they cannot just focus on him on the edge. After a very good year, look for his name to be talked about as a future first round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Most Impactful Newcomer: Hardy Nickerson Jr., MLB
With former linebackers Mason Mannheim and TJ Neal leaving (graduation and transfer, respectively) many wondered who would take over in the middle. Luckily, Lovie Smith hired Hardy Nickerson to the staff, which prompted his son to transfer from Cal to Illinois in order to play his final collegiate season under his dad. Not only is it a great story, but this move is a huge help for the Illini defense. Nickerson Jr. had 111 tackles last season, and when you have a player with his defensive instincts, it makes everyone around him better. I fully expect Nickerson Jr. to be a major player in this defense, and could even give Smoot a run for his money as the best defensive player this season.
Breakout Performer of the Year: Desmond Cain, WR
The wide receiving core has not caught any breaks lately. With Geronimo Allison graduating and currently on the Packers roster, and Mike Dudek tearing his ACL once again, the core continues to thin for the Illini. Malik Turner and Justin Hardee will be the two starters on the outside, but neither has shown that they can be a number one option in an offense. Enter Desmond Cain, a slot receiver who was very productive when he got onto the field. With more opportunity for playing time this season, he will be on the field in most three wide receiver sets. Personally, I think Cain is the best (healthy) receiver on the team. With Turner and Hardee getting more attention, Cain could fly under the radar and post some real nice numbers.
Most Impactful Freshman: Cameron Watkins, CB
Even though the Illini have built a very good defense this season, every defense has its weaknesses. The weakness Illinois has is its secondary. Taylor Barton will be lock down at one of the safety spots, but corner needs some work. Jaylen Dunlap and Darius Mosley will start the season at corner, but don’t be surprised if someone else cracks the starting lineup at some point. Cameron Watkins has been gaining momentum in camp and seems to have locked the nickel corner spot up. Big Ten teams, even though most run pro style offenses, aren’t afraid to sling the ball around the yard, so expect Watkins to be on the field quite a bit and make plays.
Game By Game Predictions
9/3: vs. Murray State
The first test of the year for the Illini should not be a tough one. Murray State finished 3-8 last season, 2-6 in conference play. They also didn’t fare very well on the road (1-5). I don’t expect this to be a challenge. Vaughn should start his season off very well as Illinois will pound the running game down the Racer’s throats all day long. The defense should feast on the Racer offense, despite their quarterback KD Humphries setting a Murray State passing record last season. Expect the starters to be out by at least the 4th quarter, if not sooner.
Illinois 34, Murray State 13
9/10: vs. North Carolina
This should be a good one. Lovie Smith and company will face their first giant test on the prime time stage. Despite losing quarterback Marquise Williams, the Tar Heels return plenty of starters on offense, most notably running back Elijah Hood and wide receiver Ryan Switzer. I expect a much closer game this time around, and the Illini might surprise a confident UNC team early. But, I think the Tar Heels are one possession better than the Illini and it will come down to exactly that.
UNC 27, Illinois 21
9/17: vs. Western Michigan
Don’t be surprised if the Illini are fighting for their lives in this one. The Broncos have a solid team on both sides of the ball. The defense might struggle trying to cover top wide receiver prospect Corey Davis. A lot of analysts believe he is a first round talent, so I expect the corners to have their hands full. The Broncos’ defense is solid too, boasting good players at the second level and in the secondary. Running the ball well to set up a passing game will be key in this game, and the pass rush needs to get in the backfield and not give QB Zach Terrell all day to throw. Lovie won’t let this team be complacent, and will escape with the win here.
Illinois 31, Western Michigan 24
10/1: at Nebraska
This game is one of the tougher ones to predict. Nebraska does not impress me at all as a football team, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Illinois and Nebraska finish with the same record. Tommy Armstrong is one of the worst quarterbacks in the Big Ten, leading the conference in interceptions last year. The defense is also in a transition, but the remaining issue for Illinois is the road game. In the Big Ten, you hardly find a road game that is a pushover. Lincoln is a tough spot to play, and Illinois won’t start the season with five wins in six games.
Nebraska 20, Illinois 16
10/8: vs. Purdue
Last year’s game was not an aberration. I believe the Illini are that much better than the Boilermakers. Plus, last season was in West Lafayette, and now Purdue comes to Champaign to get a thrashing. This will be Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s game to watch, as he could eclipse 200 yards and get a couple scores against an underwhelming Purdue run defense. Lunt should continue his good start to the season with one of his best on this day too.
Illinois 35, Purdue 14
10/15: at Rutgers
As we have talked about already, Big Ten road games are never a pushover. There’s only one thing about this one: Piscataway is NOT Lincoln. Rutgers is in serious rebuilding mode, and could be described as the worst team in the Big Ten. They have a real issue at the quarterback spot, and lost some seniors to the NFL last season. The Illini could struggle early because of a long road trip, but I expect Lovie to make sure they are disciplined and ready to go.
Illinois 24, Rutgers 10
10/22: at Michigan
The Illini face their toughest test on October 22nd by traveling to The Big House in Ann Arbor to face Michigan. Two former NFL head coaches in Lovie Smith and Jim Harbaugh will face off in a game that could have some hype around it. Michigan did lose quarterback Jake Rudock to the NFL, but I don’t expect finding his replacement to be an issue. The secondary is loaded with NFL talent, as well as the offensive line. If Cubit were coaching this team, they might get blown out of the stadium, but I expect Lovie to have a better effect on his team. I don’t expect a win here, but I don’t expect a major blowout either.
Michigan 24, Illinois 13
10/29: vs. Minnesota (Homecoming)
First off, let’s go back to two seasons ago when the Illini broke out the Grey Ghost uniforms for the Minnesota game. They did wear them last season, but didn’t get the result they’d hoped. They should be worn again for homecoming this season. With a full house crowd, the Illini should have all the motivation they need. I expect the offense to be figured out by this late in the season, with Lunt, Cain, and company being efficient in the passing game while riding the hot hand of Ke’Shawn Vaughn. The defensive scheme should also be polished by this point. Minnesota did beat the Illini last season, but I expect a better coaching staff to be the difference in this one. Minnesota will wish they got Illinois at home.
Illinois 27, Minnesota 24
11/5: vs. Michigan State
Michigan State, fresh off making their first College Football Playoff appearance, will still have a tough team in 2016. I expect the home field to be a factor in this game, but a seamless transition at quarterback, a solid running attack, and NFL bodies on the defense will be too much for Illinois to handle. This might be a game where the average offense of Illinois gets exposed.
Michigan State 23, Illinois 7
11/12: at Wisconsin
Last year, even though the Illini got beat on homecoming, I still believe we were the more talented team. Now, with a much better coaching staff, that talent should be used better to create a good gameplan. Wisconsin loves to run the ball, and they will do so early and often with running back Corey Clement. I think Illinois has the perfect answer for Clement with their stout defensive line and Nickerson at linebacker. Two years ago, the Illini got off to a brilliant start on the road, but flawed play calling with the lead cost them heavily. This year, I expect much better from a play calling perspective. So much so, in fact, that I’ll go out on a limb by myself and predict a win here. That’s six wins, so you know what that means: BOWL GAME.
Illinois 23, Wisconsin 20
11/19: vs. Iowa
The brutal second half stretch continues with Big Ten West champion Iowa coming to town. Iowa doesn’t have too many standout players, but they play real well as a unit. I expect CJ Beathard to be calm and collected running the Hawkeyes’ offense. Desmond King will be all over the field for Iowa on defense. This could be a defensive struggle, but Iowa is a better unit at this point.
Iowa 26, Illinois 16
11/26: at Northwestern
Northwestern and Illinois seem to always play good games, and they have split in the last two years. The Wildcats were a much improved group last season, and I expect them to be no different in 2016. Justin Jackson will again be a major factor as one of the best backs in the Big Ten. Northwestern also has a very good defense that will challenge Wes Lunt and Ke’Shawn Vaughn. This is a different team than two years ago, so I don’t see Illinois leaving Evanston with Lincoln’s hat.
Northwestern 24, Illinois 17
Not a bad start to the Lovie Smith era in Champaign. I think the six wins and the bowl game will further help Lovie’s recruitment, and we will continue to see growth in this program. Sit back Illini fans, and watch the first season of the Lovie Era unfold!