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Lovie Smith, Illini talking big game but can they back it up?

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Believe it or not, the University of Illinois was once a big deal in the world of college football. They’ve won the fourth-most Big Ten championships in the conference’s history (14), but the last 60-plus years have seen things take a general downward spiral. Illinois has just six Big Ten titles since 1950 and only two since 1990.

That history didn’t stop new head coach Lovie Smith nor athletic director Josh Whitman from talking Big Ten titles as the two spoke to the media for the first time since Smith’s hire was announced early on Monday morning.

In fact, listening to the two of them speak, one would believe Big Ten championships are an inevitability under Smith’s tutelage. Even the best of recruiters couldn’t sustain success in Champaign, including Ron Zook, who went from a Big Ten championship in his third year to being a mediocre program in a few years time.

Still, Smith and Whitman spoke plenty of how the culture and trust in the ideas Smith has for this program will be paramount in building what they hope will be a championship-caliber team.

What is also for sure is that Whitman is very confident in his first move as athletic director. He made that much known in the firing of Cubit, but also in the money spent to hire Smith in the first place.

A six-year, $25 million deal puts Smith squarely in the middle of the Big Ten coaches salary race. Bill Cubit earned just under $1 million for coaching last season, but that was a rare instance and had it been Tim Beckman we would’ve been looking at a coach making just over $1.5 million this past season.

Smith’s $2 million base salary in 2016 will gradually increase to $5 million over the last two years of the deal. It’s an impressive commitment that will ensure Smith and his staff stay in the mix of coaching salaries within the “Power 5” conferences.

The biggest strength of this hire right now isn’t on the field — its in the fact that the entire college sports world is talking about Illinois football, and not in a joking way. Getting the media to pay attention in a conference where Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer suck the majority of the air out of the room is impressive in and of itself.

Media attention and hype is well and good, but from today on it will be all about what Lovie Smith does with his coaching staff and his players. Hiring top recruiters in the college game during spring ball isn’t exactly an easy task, and all eyes will be on those first moves for Smith and Whitman.

What will the staff salary pool be? Can Smith tap back in to the college football world and begin to build a championship staff?

It certainly appears the money for assistants won’t be an issue:

Smith also hinted that he already has an idea of whom he wants on his staff and the makeup of the coaches he’d like to be with. He indicated that the read-option will be a part of a varied offensive look and his famous 4-3 defense will be in Champaign as well.

Given all of that, it appears the Illini athletic department and the university in general are ready to support whatever this program needs — monetarily or otherwise.

Between Smith’s plan of action, the serious pool of money for assistant coaches and his knowledge of the NFL there is a clear chance for this hire to be a home run. The proof of that will start when the Illini get going on spring practice, and that won’t be happening until April at the earliest.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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Illini Football

Predicting the 2018 Illinois Fighting Illini season game-by-game

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We’re nearing game week and that means it is time to gather all the intel possible and make the best decisions possible…because it’s time to put our money where our mouths are. 

Yes, the annual tradition of Illinois Fighting Illini season predictions is back. Yes, we’re also going to break down the season in game-by-game fashion. 

No, you won’t see it in the written form. Instead, we’re going 21st century and giving you our publisher, Andrew Coppens, thoughts in video format. 

The Illini went first (no coincidence to alphabetical order), so you can follow along by subscribing to our YouTube channel as well. 

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Also don’t forget to join in the conversation below and let us know your thoughts on the season and your predictions too! 

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Illini Football

Illini look to fresh jerseys to help reboot football program

Illinois reaches to its successful past in hopes of sparking interest in struggling football program of today. It means new uniforms for the football program.

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Nothing says trying to shed a bad image like rebooting your jersey and helmet looks. When you’re the Illinois Fighting Illini and you’ve compiled a whopping 5-19 overall record and just two Big Ten wins in the last two years, a reboot is probably a good idea.

On Friday morning, the Illini announced exactly that, keeping the school colors and even the Gray Ghost uniforms they have worn to pay homage to the Galloping Ghost himself, Harold “Red” Grange. The new uniforms feature a much simpler look and a more defined block “I” on the v of the neck.

For you old-timers out there, these uniforms are likely to look very familiar to you. That’s because they harken back to the Illini glory days of the Dick Butkus era in the 1960’s.

One of the biggest additions to the uniform combinations is that of a re-designed orange helmet. Gone is the metallic look, replaced by a matted finish and a color that more accurately fits the uniform color as well.

Illinois will begin wearing the new gear for the home opener on Sept. 1 against Kent State and of course will begin to be available for purchase (blue only apparently) this fall as well.

As for the design, I like the simplified look and feel of the jersey. Illinois has a color scheme that stands out in the Big Ten, so why try to hide it. Instead, they are embracing history and moving forward to hopefully more success.

With all the momentum off the field, hopefully Love Smith and crew can deliver some of that same momentum on the field. We’ll have an idea about that when the Illini hold an open practice tomorrow, April 7.

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Illini Football

Lovie Smith hits home run with Rod Smith’s hire as OC

Lovie Smith hires prolific spread offensive coordinator Rod Smith in hopes of jump-starting a stagnant Illinois Fighting Illini offense.

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Just one day after two former starting quarterbacks announced their departure from the Illinois Fighting Illini program, the Illini went out and announced a huge hire.

On Friday afternoon, head coach Lovie Smith announced the hire of former Arizona offensive coordinator to the same position for the Illini.

“Rod Smith brings terrific and exciting offensive experience to our staff at Illinois,” Lovie Smith said. “His background and development of dual-threat quarterbacks and multiple-threat offenses is the direction we are going here. Rod has developed explosive quarterback play and offensive performance at each of his coaching stops.”

It was huge get for the head coach because Cam Thomas, who is a true dual threat quarterback is literally the only scholarship quarterback on the roster until the fall.

Smith comes to Illinois after leading one of the most explosive offenses in the country at Arizona. Smith helped lead an offense that averaged 41.3 points (5th nationally), 309.3 rushing yards, 180.2 passing yards and 489.5 total yards (12th nationally) per game. Wildcat quarterback Khalil Tate rushed for 1,411 yards (9.2 yards per carry), while completing 62 percent of his passes for 1,591 passing yards with 14 touchdowns.

Most importantly, Smith has an extensive background as a quarterbacks coach, and that background will be tested by the rawness of Cam Thomas’ game and two incoming recruits this fall.

He’s had success not just with one quarterback in the fold at Arizona as well, working with Anu Solomon for three seasons prior to Tate taking over at quarterback. Solomon completed his three-year playing career with the third-most passing touchdowns and fourth-most passing yards in UA history. In 2014, Solomon threw for 2,793 yards and 28 touchdowns, with only nine interceptions.

That kind of production and long-term output at quarterback is sorely needed for the Illini to turn things around. Just how fast can Smith mold Thomas? He’ll get a really good opportunity with a cleared quarterback room this spring.

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Illini Football

Illini have no choice but Cam Thomas at QB now

Two quarterbacks announce transfers within a matter of hours on Wednesday, leaving the Illini with only Cam Thomas on scholarship.

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The Illinois Fighting Illini went in to this offseason with three quarterbacks who started games in 2017. It took just one day for that to completely change though.

On Wednesday night, redshirt junior quarterback Jeff George Jr. announced he would be graduating in the spring with a degree in Management and will transfer from the program as a graduate transfer. He will have two seasons of eligibility left wherever she goes.

Chayce Crouch then announced that he was retiring from football period after an injury-riddled career at Illinois.

So, what was once a potentially three-man race for the starting quarterback job just became a one-man race and the winner by default is sophomore quarterback Cam Thomas.

He’ll have a lot of work to do this offseason though, because his opening campaign was a rough one on the stat sheet. Thomas completed just 42.4 percent of his passes (28 of 66) for 375 yards and zero touchdowns to five interceptions.

In four games he also rushed for 233 yards and a touchdown. Thomas was clearly much more comfortable as a runner than a thrower in the Big Ten.

The question is, will the lessons learned in those four games as a starter be enough to push him in to being the guy that turns things around for the stagnant Illini offense.

Thomas is easily the leader in the clubhouse given he’s the only quarterback on the roster with any experience, but he will be joined in the fall by 2018 signee M.J. Rivers. He is a 6-4, 213-pound dual threat quarterback that was ranked as the No. 26 dual threat QB in the country.

It means the Illini will go in to spring ball with just one scholarship quarterback on the roster and in to the 2018 season with just two scholarship quarterbacks at all.

Lovie Smith now has to trust in Thomas and pray he’s the answer they’ve been looking for or it may be curtains for his time at the helm of the Illini program.

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