2018 Illinois Fighting Illini College Football Preview
Head Coach: Lovie Smith
2017 Record: 2-10; 0-9 Big Ten
2017 Bowl: N/A
Odds to win Big 10: +80000
Odds to win Big 10 West: +10000
Odds to win National Title: +100000
The Illinois Fighting Illini have been wretched offensively during Lovie Smith’s two years at the program. Large in part this has been because of poor play from its quarterbacks, but that could be on the verge of changing with a talented true freshman Cam Thomas entering the program. He is well-suited for OC Rod Smith’s up-tempo offense, though he will have to fend off other newcomers for the QB role initially. The biggest obstacle Thomas and his cohorts will face is the task of throwing from behind a weak offensive line. Illinois ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring and total offense last season due to it, with four first-year players lining up, including three true freshman.
The run game was equally hampered by the poor blocking, and the Illini ranked last in the league in rushing yardage, too. The biggest weapons it has going for it will need the blocking, as Ra’Von Bonner and Mike Epstein are both powerful rushers without a lot of help from the O-line in creating holes for them.
The wide receivers are talented, too, with Mikey Dudek and Ricky Smalling both providing great options for Thomas, while TE Louis Dorsey is a legitimate talent in his own right. But with good WRs and above-average RBs, what is the best that can be hoped for?
Well, it goes back to the line. It just has to do its job or this offense will continue to struggle as it did a year ago when it averaged a measly 15.4 points per game in 2017.
Illinois was not good offensively last year, but its defense was hardly good either. Illinois surrendered 31.5 points per game and 418 yards per game on average a year ago, and it ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring defense. The run defense was particularly bad. This year, they hope to improve those prospects with junior tackle Tymir Oliver, who is quick and athletic and will be a big boost on the edge.
The linebackers are shaky, with JUCO transfer Del’Shawn Phillips being the best of the group. The secondary is probably the defense’s strength as Tony Adams and Nate Hobbs are both good at cornerback. Overall, focusing on better run defense will be the primary focus at first, because Illinois allowed opponents 218.5 rushing yards per game last season.
Kicker Chase McLaughlin and punter Blake Hayes both return, but neither was particularly impressive thus far either. McLaughlin hit 12 of 17 FGs last year, but he hit none further than 43-yards. Hayes averaged 42 yards on 77 punt attempts, and he had 10 kicks of 50 yards or more. The return game was weak last season, but there were not many areas of any parts of this program that was not, as tends to be the case with a team that fails to win a conference matchup all season.
Lovie Smith is still trying to prove himself after joining the program as a successful and celebrated NFL coach. He has won just five games in two seasons, and he is still trying to bring in the necessary recruits to make this program flourish.
The Illini had 31 first-time starters last season, which was the second-most in the entire country. That signals rebuild, but is there anything being built really? Smith tried to do what he could in remaking the staff, but it seems unlikely Illinois goes from how poor it was a year ago to any sort of Bowl appearance.
It is going to be another long rough season, but it still will likely be at least a bit better than it was last year. That is the idea, anyway. If Thomas can shine at QB and get at least decent protection, the offense can make tremendous strides. That is asking a lot, however, given that the OL showed so little promise last season and is comprised of the same (rather inexperienced) players.
Prediction: 3 wins