Illinois Fighting Illini
Head Coach: Lovie Smith
2015 Record: 4-7
2015 Bowl: N/A
2016 Returning Starters: 5 Offense, 4 Defense
Odds to win 2017 Championship Game: +400000
Odds to win 2016 Big Ten Championship: +16000
Regular Season over/under: over 4.5 (-125), under 4.5 (+105)
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The Illinois Fighting Illini finished 2015 with a 6-7 mark and failed to make Bowl play. The season ended with three straight losses to Ohio State, Minnesota and Northwestern. Illinois started the season 4-1 including a 14-13 victory over Nebraska in Week 5. Wes Lunt is still a quality NFL-caliber QB, and if Illinois can stay healthy it can hang with most Big Ten teams. But staying healthy has been an immense problem for Lovie Smith’s team.
Season ending injuries to Mikey Dudek and Dre Brown have put the kibosh on any sustained success Illinois could have had. Sophomore RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn is a big time player, and there is plenty of experience at WR and on the OL, too. Illinois averaged just 22.7 points and 372.7 yards per game last season, ranking No. 103 and No. 88 in the nation. That has to improve, after ranking No. 12 in the Big Ten last season. The offense will be different with a new coaching staff and OC Garrick McGee will try to implement some new schemes to change things up in Champaign.
Lunt will have less time to make decisions, but the OL is mediocre at best and has to do a better job protecting him. Lunt has too much talent for Illinois to average just 243.4 passing yards per game, a tally that ranked them No. 47 in the nation. If the OL can provide adequate protection, that figure rises and puts Illinois in the top-30 pass offenses this season.
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Last season Illinois held opponents to just 23.3 points and 350.8 yards per game, ranking No. 37 and No. 30 in the nation. The once soft defense of the Fighting Illini came through huge last season, even holding Ohio State to just 28 points (though Illinois managed only a field goal in the game).
Senior E Dawuane Smoot had eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss last season, and he is a key player in the defense. Chunky Clements can be an absolute force at tackle, and graduate transfer Hardy Nickerson Jr. is a strong MLB. Illinois returns just four starters to its defense, though, and the turnover will require some adaptations by Lovie Smith’s line.
In the secondary, Illinois has SS Taylor Barton returning to lead a unit that will feature CBs Jaylen Dunlap and Darius Mosley and Caleb Day starting at FS. Illinois held teams to 184.4 passing yards per game last season, ranking No. 15 in the nation. The secondary should be good again, and Lovie Smith remains excited about what is going on in Illinois, adding “We’re catching up quickly.” If the secondary is what it was last season and the line can gel, the Fighting Illini defense should again be in the top-half of the Big Ten.
Illinois needs its kicking game fixed. David Reisner will start at kicker and is a big question mark. Punter will be Ryan Frain, and he has to improve a good bit too. V’Angelo Bentley will no longer be around for returns, so that is a source of concern for the Fighting Illini, too.
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Illinois opens the season with three home games in Weeks 1 through 3 against Murray State, North Carolina and Western Michigan. Conference play opens Week 4 on Oct. 1 at Nebraska. The Fighting Illini play on the road at Michigan Oct. 22 and host Michigan State on Nov. 5. Iowa and Northwestern conclude the season on Nov. 19 and Nov. 26.
Smith should keep this unit competitive, but it is hard to imagine a drastic reversal of last season’s fortunes. The team lacks experience on the field and has had off-field issues, too. If Smith can just keep it together and sniff out a .500 season, that would be about the best they could hope for in Champaign this season.
Prediction: 5 wins
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