It’s season three for Lovie Smith, which means the winning has to start at some point. With a roster full of underclassmen last season, Illinois went winless in the Big Ten and had just two wins overall. Now with those underclassmen a bit more experienced, the hope is that it could lead to a couple wins in Conference play. To help, Smith brought in a new offensive coordinator from Arizona in Rod Smith, who runs a faster system that spreads things out. The problem in the spring was that Cam Thomas was the only quarterback with playing experience and he only had two starts last season and threw no touchdowns and five picks. Unsurprisingly, Illinois is projected to finish last (at 5Dimes Sportsbook) in the Big Ten West again.
For a team that managed just 15.4 points per Game last year, the quarterback is the most important position, especially since they’re moving to a new offense. AJ Bush will transfer over in the summer, but expecting a guy that played at Nebraska (two years), Iowa Western CC (one year) and Virginia Tech (one year) to make a difference is a mistake. Whether it’s Thomas or Bush under center, it’s hard to see this offense making a huge jump. The hope is that everyone else stays healthy. The offensive line only lost one starter and should be plenty more experienced after giving the running Game no room last season (3.3 yards per carry). Top running backs Mike Epstein and Ra’Von Bonner can be good, but both have had injury issues. At receiver, Mike Dudek (24 receptions) is expected to be a bigger part of the new offense, although it’s been a while since he caught 76 balls back in 2014. The help around him is a bit unknown with Ricky Smalling the top returnee and Caleb Reams getting some spring hype because he moved from tight end to wide out.
The defense was slightly better last year, but that doesn’t say much after allowing 31.5 points per Game. Just like the offense, most of the top guys return because the Illini went so young last year. The linebackers run Hardy Nickerson’s defense with Del’Shawn Phillips the biggest name, but also James Knight and Dele Harding expected to have bigger roles. The Illini got torched on the ground for 218 yards per Game and that can’t happen again if they want to have success. That’s been a major problem for Lovie Smith in his two years and that has to change at some point. The young secondary played well behind top safeties Stanley Green and Bennett Williams, but also wasn’t forced to do much when every running Game had success against them.
Once again, the Fighting Illini should open the season with a couple wins and possibly three, depending on what happens against USF, who should look a bit different then a year ago. In order to get some Big Ten wins, they’ll need to beat teams like Purdue and Minnesota at home, but also move the needle in road Games at Rutgers and Maryland. The Schedule isn’t overly difficult, but that doesn’t mean an offense without a set starter at quarterback is going to make a bowl Game. Because of the non-conference, at least Four wins should be on the table, and anything more than that is possible simply because the team is more experienced, but that’s still not an easy thing to bet on.
2018 Illinois Fighting Illini Football Schedule
Sept. 1 vs. Kent State
Sept. 8 vs. Western Illinois
Sept. 15 vs. South Florida (Soldier Field, Chicago)
Sept. 21 vs. Penn State
Oct. 6 at Rutgers
Oct. 13 vs. Purdue
Oct. 20 at Wisconsin
Oct. 27 at Maryland
Nov. 3 vs. Minnesota
Nov. 10 at Nebraska
Nov. 17 vs. Iowa
Nov. 24 at Northwestern