Can you feel it? The crisp autumn air? The noise early on Saturday morning. It all means that Illini football is officially back! Many fans weren’t happy with last season’s results, but now head coach Lovie Smith is finally bringing in his guys. Unfortunately, there won’t be a drastic change this season. However, the young recruits will get plenty of playing time this season, setting themselves up for better success in the future. Let’s dive in to the roster and predict the games.
There are some glaring weaknesses on this 2017 Illini team. Quarterback Chayce Crouch is a much better runner than a pocket passer. Expect to see the Illini run the ball plenty this season.
The secondary is young, and that usually doesn’t translate to immediate success. However, Tony Adams, Stanley Green, and Bennett Williams will get meaningful snaps all season. Their development is something to keep an eye on.
The other position to watch is the offensive line. Two freshmen will get the chance to start against Ball State. They have veterans around them, but it’s important to see how they play in one-on-ones, especially in pass protection.
Now let’s shift to the positives. First off, the long awaited return of Mike Dudek is here. After two tough seasons on the shelf, it is great to see him back. Many Illini fans expected a superstar after his 1,000 yard season as a freshman. His eight catch, 200 yard performance against Purdue was a true spectacle. Now, he has a chance to really show what this team has missed in the passing game.
The running back group is one of the better ones on this team. Kendrick Foster broke out in a big way last season, and he looks to build on that as a senior. Reggie Corbin is a nice complement to him. These two will need to feed off each other to carry this offense.
Many eyes will be on three big names on defense. Senior corner Jaylen Dunlap is definitely one of those names. Dunlap has started the past two seasons, and now he needs to carry this young secondary. I am shocked that Cameron Watkins isn’t a starter in the secondary, as he had flashes of potential last season. Two other returners along the defensive line are Jamal Milan and James Crawford. Lovie Smith builds his defense around getting pressure from four guys and dropping linebackers into coverage. Milan and Crawford need to generate pressure all season long.
Finally, let’s look at the linebacker spot. It is a bit of an unknown after Hardy Nickerson left, especially now that sophomore Jake Hansen is done for the season. However, the coaching staff likes Julian Jones to fill the weak side spot. This is a group I’m looking forward to watch.
Illinois 31, Ball State 21
The Illini should be able to stave off Ball State, but don’t expect these birds to lay down easily. Plus, this is a very new unit on the defensive side of the ball.
Illinois 27, Western Kentucky 24
This game should be very close. Western Kentucky has played with the Illini in their last two meeting. Expect nothing different here. Kendrick Foster and Mike Dudek will be the difference in this game.
South Florida 30, Illinois 17
South Florida is no joke this season. That offense, led by quarterback Quinton Flowers, is very dangerous. This is a big first test in 2017, and I’m not sure this team can handle the road atmosphere.
Nebraska 27, Illinois 17
Lovie Smith’s teams will play defense. In this case, the offense may not get enough going to relieve the defense in this game. Nebraska is a better football team overall, and I don’t expect the magical heroics from two seasons ago.
Iowa 34, Illinois 13
This is another case of the defense getting worn down. Iowa running back Akrum Wadley is a very good player, and he alone could wear them down early. Their defense is always stout, so 13 points may be an overestimation here.
Illinois 23, Rutgers 19
Rutgers isn’t a slouch like last season. They just held Washington to only 30 points and stayed in the game most of the way. The Illini get lucky, as this game is in Champaign. I expect the team to be gelling at this point, and they will secure a big home win.
Minnesota 26, Illinois 16
New head coach P.J. Fleck and company could struggle out of the gate in Minnesota. However, by late October, I expect a full fledge contender out of the Gophers. Illinois should keep this one close for a while, but they won’t get the knockout punch.
Wisconsin 33, Illinois 20
Illinois always seems to play Wisconsin close for a quarter or two. Then, the flood gates open. Wisconsin will continue to have a powerful rushing attack, and quarterback Alex Hornibrook is getting better as a passer. The defensive line will need to be stout against the run and get pressure on Hornibrook. I expect that the young secondary could let one or two big plays doom them.
Illinois 24, Purdue 20
Illinois needs this game to show improvement. Purdue has been a nemesis on the schedule, especially after a missed field goal cost the Illini a win last season. Lovie’s group will have a challenge on the road, but talent at the skill positions wins out here.
Indiana 35, Illinois 16
Indiana looked like a winnable game on the schedule in 2017. Then, they went and competed toe-to-toe with Ohio State for two and a half quarters. Richard Lagow is the real deal at quarterback, and they have two studs at receiver, one of whom (Simmie Cobbs Jr.) will go high in the draft next April. That group will prove way to difficult to stop, especially for a young secondary.
Ohio State 41, Illinois 10
The second game of a brutal finish for the Illini, Ohio State is a giant step up as far as a program goes. Their pass rush trio of Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard, and Nick Bosa could live in the backfield all day. Their secondary is young, but talented. If Illinois can stop the run, JT Barrett isn’t a world beater at quarterback. However, stopping the run is no easy task when it concerns Ohio State.
Northwestern 28, Illinois 17
An odd twist of events, this game will be played in Champaign instead of Soldier Field. This home field advantage is worth a few points, especially with Lincoln’s hat on the line. However, Northwestern could be playing to secure their status as Big Ten West champions here. They won’t let the rivalry slip through their fingers.
Final Record: 4-8
Growing pains are a real thing. But, it’s important to (yes I’m stealing this from Philly) trust the process. Lovie Smith can build something special here, but it will take time.