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Things will be a bit different for Illinois this year, mainly because Lovie Smith is at the helm with a slew of new coordinators and schemes. Smith has never been a head coach at the college level so it'll definitely be interesting to see this play out after he spent the last 20 years in the NFL. The Fighting Illini came away with five wins last year, but only two of them came in Big Ten play, and two of them were freebies in non-conference. Reaching a bowl game will be the main goal for this year's group.
Probably the best news for Smith is that he has an NFL-caliber quarterback to work with in Wes Lunt. Lunt has been through a lot in his college career and never put up great numbers (14 TDs, 6 INTs last year), but has the size, arm and experience to win games for this team. He'll be joined by Ke'Shawn Vaughn in the backfield, who got valuable experience last season as a freshman rushing for 723 yards and six touchdowns. If those two guys can produce, Illinois should compete against a lot of teams in the Big Ten West.
The receiving core is a bit bare though, with Malik Turner (510 yards, 3 TDs) now the top option out wide. Unfortunately for the Illini, Mike Dudek tore his ACL again in the spring and they'll be without him for the second straight year. The line returns three starters, including both tackles and center Joe Spencer, so there is at least familiarity with the group. Illinois scored just 22.7 points per game in 2015 so there's plenty of room for improvement.
The Illinois defense had solid numbers last year, but when the offense failed to put up more than a couple touchdowns against the Big Ten's best, it didn't really matter. They lose six of their top seven tacklers from a year ago, so that hurts, and it'll be another task for the new core to learn Lovie Smith's scheme.
As a positive, the Illini still have some players along the line with ends Dawuane Smoot and Rob Bain combining with Chunky Clements. These guys are the highlight on the defensive side and need to live up to that billing. Outside of the front guys, there are a lot of new faces. Linebacker is thin with multiple guys having transferred, so that will be an area of focus. The same can be said about the secondary where safety Taylor Barton is the only one returning with notable experience.
Outside of Murray State, Illinois has a tough run in non-conference play with UNC on the slate again to go with Western Michigan, who has been one of the better MAC teams. At the least, the Illini need two wins out of those three games. There will be opportunities to reach more than two Big Ten wins as well with home games against Purdue and Minnesota standing out, as well as a road game at Rutgers. But other than that, it's not pretty with Illinois drawing both teams from Michigan out of the East division.
The Illini would like to compete in the West, but that seems like a long shot at this point, due to roster and schedule. Reaching six wins will probably be considered a success and anything less would seem about right.
2016 Illinois Fighting Illini Football Schedule
Sept. 3 vs. Murray State
Sept 10 vs. North Carolina
Sept. 17 vs. Western Michigan
Oct. 1 at Nebraska
Oct. 8 vs. Purdue
Oct. 15 at Rutgers
Oct. 22 at Michigan
Oct. 29 vs. Minnesota
Nov. 5 vs. Michigan State
Nov. 12 at Wisconsin
Nov. 19 vs. Iowa
Nov. 26 at Northwestern
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