The Illinois Fighting Illini have lived at the bottom of the Big Ten for several years. Lovie Smith reached a Super Bowl as an NFL head coach in Chicago. Now he is trying to revive one of the foremost college football programs in the state of Illinois, and it has been tough sledding. No aspect of the Illinois program has significantly improved in the few seasons Smith has been at the helm. He needs his recruiting classes to begin to have an effect on the field, but it is very hard for Illinois to currently attract top players. This year is important as a transitional period in which Illinois needs to begin to show it can rise to the next level. A good start is to exceed the regular season win total of 3.5 games.
Illinois 2018 regular season win total
Odds courtesy of BetDSI Sportsbook.
What Happened Last Year
The Illini won their first two games of the season… and did not win again. The Illini made a very late rally to stop Ball State, and they won against an underachieving Western Kentucky team which had been very strong in previous seasons but could not find any consistency in 2017. Then Illinois got walloped by South Florida, and after that, the Big Ten ravaged Illinois, handing Smith’s team an 0-9 conference record. Rutgers, Indiana and Minnesota were the most winnable games on Rutgers’ Big Ten schedule, but the Illini couldn’t win any of those games. The offense was poor against Indiana and Minnesota, and the defense caved in against Rutgers. Purdue improved last season, making the Boilermakers a very difficult opponent for the Illini. The rest of the Big Ten West was far too strong for Illinois, especially the team’s overwhelmed offensive line.
What Will Change This Year
Cam Thomas will be the quarterback under new offensive coordinator Rod Smith, who is promising a more up-tempo attack which will try to push the ball down the field more aggressively. How well the Illini implement their new system will have a lot to do with how they perform.
A key observation to make is that the up-tempo system is a way of reducing the burden on the offensive line. The coaching staff thinks that if the quarterback can release the ball more quickly and if plays occur within a hurry-up framework, the offensive line won’t have to hold its blocks long enough, and opposing defensive lines will get exhausted enough that the Illinois offensive line won’t give up as many negative plays in the fourth quarters of games. The thought process is sound and makes sense, but the offense still requires a level of talent which can turn the philosophy into results, and many are skeptical of this team’s abilities.
Outlook & Prediction
The Illini play Rutgers, Maryland and Minnesota as part of their nine-game Big Ten schedule. They play Kent State and an FCS team, which means they should be able to get two wins in September, but then they will need two Big Ten wins to get more than 3.5, and that will be the hard part. They will have to win at least two of the three games against Rutgers, Maryland and Minnesota. Rutgers is probably the best bet, but Maryland should be healthier than it was last season, and Minnesota has a good coach, P.J. Fleck. It is very hard to buy into what Lovie Smith is selling. Take the under.
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