Lovie Smith’s arrival this offseason brought great a sense of anticipation and excitement to a rather lackluster football team. This of course, is no NFL team, but the University of Illinois team. After finishing one win short of bowl eligibility in a chaotic season that saw them go through multiple head coaches with the firing of Tim Beckman…..and then former-offensive coordinator-and-head-coach Bill Cubit, the Illini have a lot of work to do to keep their fan-base as excited as it is now. Here is my game-by-game rundown of what anxious Illini fans can expect this season.
Sept. 3rd: vs. Murray State
Well, as Paul Crewe (Adam Sandler) says in the newer version of “The Longest Yard,” the best way to start off the preseason is a total butt-whooping (paraphrased, of course) to get the team fired up. The Illini will look to make this hold true, and beat a team that they should not only beat, but run over. My prediction is Illinois by a score of 48-13.
Sept. 10th: vs. North Carolina
The Illini have a hard schedule to start what they hope will be the ringing in of a new generation of football-prowess with Lovie Smith at the helm. They’ll be hoping that a mixture of general positivity, and the momentum coming from their first week will carry them into battle against a North Carolina team that’s nationally ranked. I think the Illini will need to force this North Carolina offense into some turnovers for the Illinois offense to keep up. I’m going against the current on this one: Illinois over the Tar Heels by a score of 21-17. (Don’t hold it against me if I’m wrong on this one, Illini fans)
Sept. 17th: vs. Western Michigan
It kills me to say this, but I think this game will be a loss for the Illini. You don’t get anything good without some sort of trouble along the way. A 3-0 start doesn’t seem likely for the Fighting Illini, and I think they won’t hold on for this one. I’m going a little bit off the board here projecting a win versus a ranked team, just to drop the next against Western Michigan. I think the Illini will make just a few too many mistakes, and drop this one heading into Big Ten play. Western Michigan 27-24.
Oct. 1st at Nebraska
The Illini had a big 14-13 win last year at home vs Nebraska, and I don’t think going on the road will change much this year. I think we take this one on the road from the Cornhuskers, and have a happy flight/drive home. Defense is going to be huge again in this game, and if this Illinois defense plays up to what it should, they’ll take a close one here. Illinois 17-14.
Oct 8th vs Purdue
Illinois vs Purdue has hosted some fun games in the past, both in football and in basketball. This will be Purdue’s second road game in a row coming off a game vs. Maryland, and Illinois will have their fourth home game out of the first five (though, arguably, there are four rough games in there.) Look for Illinois to take on a (better than last year) Purdue team, and come off on the better end of this matchup. The Illinois offense should shine in this one, and come away with a good win at home. Illinois 31-17
Oct 15th at Rutgers
Rutgers will hold onto a close one in this one, which also happens to be just the third meeting ever between the two teams. Illinois won the last meeting in a close game 33-30 back in 2005, look for a close game in this one as well. Rutgers will be desperate for a win in Big Ten play, and could prove a rough opponent for the Illini in just their second road game. Rutgers will steal this one from Lovie and Co. Rutgers by a score of 28-21.
Oct. 22nd at Michigan
It’s not only going to Ann Arbor, its going to Ann Arbor to play a Michigan team coming off of a break. I’m not liking the looks of this one for this Illini, but I hope I’m proved wrong. Michigan 35-10
Oct. 29th vs Minnesota
This will be a good game for the Illini as they look to rebound at home after the loss on the road to arguably one of the best teams in the country. Look for Lovie to get his boys riled up to come out and impress a home crowd here hitting the heart of the season. This game will be big for bowl chances. Illinois 31-20
Nov 5th vs Michigan State
Coming off a high from beating Minnesota, the Illini will be in good spirits to play a solid Michigan State team that has a chance of beating Michigan the week before in what could turn out to be an instant classic of a football game. I think Illinois is barely going to let this one slip away to the Michigan State ground-attack. Michigan State 20-17
Nov. 12th at Wisconsin
This was a hard one to call for me. I think if Illinois comes out on top of this one it’ll have to do absolutely flawless on the defensive side. Bucky the Badger has a good run game this year. If the Fighting Illini are down at the half, Wisconsin will run the time out. However, I think Lovie and Co. have a perfect setup to stop the run game this year. Hardy Nickerson, a transfer senior, will lock down the middle, along with a stout defensive line. Playcalling killed Illinois last year, but there is a new captain at the helm of this Illini ship. Illinois 28-21
Nov. 19th vs Iowa
Iowa. At home. In the final home game of the season. Can the Illini shock the world? Surely they are due to make something special happen in this last season to gain their bowl eligibility right? Honestly, I think so. The Iowa team will compete with Illinois on almost every aspect of the game, and beat them in a lot of aspects. This Iowa team plays solidly together as a unit, even without the amount of star-power other teams have. However, I think Illinois steals this one on a late field goal. Illinois over Iowa 24-21 and they’re bowl eligible.
Nov. 26 at Northwestern
For Illinois to consider themselves successful in the recruiting game, they have to be dominant in Chicago. Lovie will be really looking for his boys to step up in this game, if not just for the sole sake of looking to impress in front of the Chicago crowd. I think Illinois can take this Northwestern team. They’ll be coming off a big win over Iowa at home the week before, but I don’t think Illinois will pull this one off. I’m going to have to say die at some point to my upset-predictions, aren’t I? Northwestern keeps Lincoln’s hat…for now. Northwestern 27-20
FINAL PREDICTION: 7-5 on the season, 5-4 in Big Ten play
Most Valuable Offensive Player: Wes Lunt, QB
Wes Lunt will be looking for a big campaign in his third and final year with the Illini, and for the Offense to really play to its fullest, it will be looking for a big year from its experienced Quarterback. Though I think Ke’Shawn Vaughn will have an absolutely fantastic breakout year, his ability to find space will rely on Lunt’s ability to test defenses in the air.
Breakthrough Season: Desmond Cain, WR
Look for Cain to be a big option this year with Mikey Dudek out again with an ACL tear (I shed a tear writing that again) and though bigger-names Malik Turner and Justin Hardee will surely get a large majority of the passes, other teams know that as well. Look for Cain to be able to sneak up on teams and put up some big numbers this year in the three-receiver sets.
Most Valuable Defensive Player: Dawuane Smoot, DE
Let’s just say that I didn’t have a brain… I’d still be predicting Smoot to take this award for me. Smoot is a solid outside pass rusher. He makes life hard on opposing QB’s with a mixture of his speed and power, and knowledge of when to use each of them. Illinois has put out a lot of good, draft-worthy defensive-men recently. Look for this year to be no different with Smoot ending his Illini career on a high, and heading off to the middle-first round to be drafted.
The Wrap Up: Though there’s no way I can absolutely guarantee this (as that is the nature of predictions) I think the likelihood of this Illini team in their first year under Lovie being 3-9 is horribly unfair. I think the momentum this team has coming into the season, mostly coming from seeming to finally have a stable groundwork in the coaching game, will propel them into what should be a good year. However, we’ll just have to see which Illinois team shows up. Will it be Illinois from the past that can throw away close games, or an Illinois team that “never says die”? That’s what will really decide this year. I’ll be hoping to see the latter. Kickoff is 2:30 today, let’s see what this season has to hold, Illini fans.