2019 College Football Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

Big South Tournament

Illinois Fighting Illini

Head Coach: Lovie Smith

2018 Record: 4-8, 2-7 Conference

Bowl: N/A

Season Win Prop: 4.5 wins (O EVEN, U -130)

Make 4 Team Playoff: +90000

Illinois ran its streak of Bowl-less seasons up to five with last year’s 4-8 campaign. The fanbase is lingering, and the players, too, are tired of the procession of losing seasons. Starting center Doug Kramer said just that, with no frills to cushion it. Lovie Smith enters his third season as coach of the Fighting Illini, and last year’s four-win season has been his best thus far. Kramer feels better about this season, and Smith will need him to be right.

The Fighting Illini have an over/under set a half-game higher than last season’s win total, so even Vegas oddsmakers are expecting at least a slight improvement, but just not enough to even grant that win projection a full game higher. One step at a time, we suppose.

Offense

Brandon Peters ended up winning the competition at quarterback, despite a lot of candidates for the job. Hopefully, that means something good for Illinois football. At least if he struggles, the Fighting Illini have tailback Reggie Corbin to bail out the offense. Corbin rushed for 1,000-plus yards and was the first in nearly a decade to do so in an Illinois uniform. He flirted with heading to the NFL, but his choice to return is the only thing that keeps this program having much hope this year.

The offensive line does return four starters to clear the way for Corbin’s rush attempts. The lone vacancy on the line will be filled by Alabama transfer Richie Petitbon, and he was impressive in the spring.

The passing game is going to struggle, though, both due to the inexperience at QB and due to the fact that its top returning receiver caught only 33 passes last season. That is Ricky Smalling. He is joined by a freshman in Marques Beason— and he is a talented two-way player who is also a skilled secondary option. Two graduate transfers, Trevon Sidney and Dejon Brissett, will hopefully add a little depth with those two. Tight end Luke Ford transferred from Georgia but was denied immediate eligibility.

Defense

Lovie Smith got tired of poor defensive play-calling, so he inserted himself into that role. At least he trusts himself? He added a pair of assistants to help him, one of those being his own son, Miles. Miles will work heavily with the linebacking group in hopes to increase the pressure this season, something that the Fighting Illini have not had much of in the past. In fact, there are precious few facets of the defense that have fared well at all during Smith’s tenure at Illinois.

The team ranked No. 122 in stopping the rush offense, while it was No. 124 in points allowed, and it was ranked No. 128 in yards allowed. None of that is good for a coach who prides himself on defensive teams. Smith knows it, as well, saying, “We played about as bad on defense as you could..in college football.”

Well, the numbers certainly back that statement up. If there are any strengths of the defense, it is up front. Bobby Roundtree returns for his third season starting at the end, and graduate transfer Oluwole Betiku does from USC where he was a five-star recruit. Tackles Tymir Oliver and Jamal Milan are both solid, too. Milo Eifler and Jake Hansen are the team’s top two tacklers. The secondary is led by safeties Tony Adams and Stanley Green, as well as cornerback Nate Hobbs. It should be fair.

The talent defensively has actually increased over last season, so if Illinois can avoid injury pitfalls it could at least improve on this end of the ball. Smith is excited about the depth, and as the defensive coordinator and head coach, if this unit struggles the full blame will land on his shoulders.

Special Teams

All-Big Ten kicker Chase McLaughlin is gone, and Caleb Griffin has to fill his big shoes. Punter Blake Hayes is excellent. Backup running back Dre Brown will handle the kick returns, while punts may be fielded by sophomore Carlos Sandy.

Final Word

Smith’s job security is about as good as can be for a coach that has yet to yield many positive results. The program even trusts him, proven by it extending his original six-year plea another two season. But his frustrations are beginning to show, and he is going to need some kind of tangible improvement. He has just two of his original hires on his staff, illustrating his desire to toggle until something works.

Illinois has an easy enough road until it hits its Big Ten schedule, where it will have to win at least three or four games for a shot at a Bowl. Last year that figure was just two, though. Smith trudges on, but this team probably fails to make a Bowl, and somehow that is probably still “enough” to remain the coach of this wavering, struggling program of the Fighting Illini.

Prediction: 3 wins (under)

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