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Illinois Fighting Illini football: Predicting the 2014 schedule

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With just about the same number of days as teams left until the start of the 2014 football season, it’s time we stop talking ice buckets and start talking gridiron. The drill is simple, we give you the schedule and we give you how the season is going to play out.

14 weeks, 12 games and all sorts of twists and turns are in front of us. So, as we take a look at each team we’ll give you a simple win/loss prediction and reason for each week of the season. We’ll start with the Big Ten West and look at the Illinois Fighting Illini (it also helps that they are first in the Big Ten alphabet).

So, let’s get the ball rolling and start putting our money where our mouths are!

2014 Illinois Schedule:

[ws_table id=”1″]

Predictions:

Aug. 30vs. Youngstown State: WIN

A rousing rendition of “Build Me Up Buttercup” goes well with this matchup. Last season the Penguins faced Michigan State and it didn’t go so well. A 55-17 scoreline in week two proved that. However, this is a team hungry to prove critics wrong after closing out the season with three straight losses. Illinois’ talent level should get them by in this game, but we’ve seen stranger things happen before.

Sept. 6vs. Western Kentucky: WIN

The Hilltoppers come in to this game as newcomers to Conference-USA, but it could be an uphill climb (pun intended) for this team in 2014. It barely finished over .500 and that was with the wonder-coach Bobby Petrino at the helm. It will be new head coach Jeff Brohm’s second game in charge and playing in a Big Ten atmosphere may be a bit overwhelming. Watching for Beckman’s men to get off to a quick start against one of the worst defenses in FBS football…and never look back.

Sept. 13at Washington: LOSS

Last season these two teams met at Soldier Field and the scoreline read 34-24 in favor of the Huskies. Things are much different in Seattle, with Steve Sarkisian off to USC along with most of the staff, plus there’s no Bishop Sankey or Keith Price to lead the offense. This will be Washington’s first test of the season and it will be the Illini’s as well. If the defense is even 25 percent better than it was last season, then Illinois can pull the upset. However, this is a road game against the Pac-12 and that’s almost been an automatic loss for the Big Ten as of late. Sorry, no upset happening here.

Sept. 20vs. Texas State: WIN

Personally, this game does scare me a bit. While Texas State didn’t light the world on fire offensively, it wasn’t a half-bad defense for most of the season. The Bobcats offensive skill position players are all still young, but gained a ton of experience in 2013. However, it’s a long way from 2-5 in the Sun Belt to winning on the road against the Big Ten. While Dennis Franchione has done some nice things in San Marcos, this team still isn’t ready to play with the bigger boys.

Sept. 27at Nebraska: LOSS

Speaking of stepping up and playing with the bigger boys…Nebraska comes a calling for a 3-1 Illini team. The record says it won’t be good for the Illini, who have a 2-8-1 record all-time against the Huskers. Last season it was a 39-19 beatdown by the Huskers in Lincoln and frankly it’s hard to see how this doesn’t play out similarly in 2014. Illinois defense may be better, but so will the Nebraska offense with some stability and experience at quarterback. Look for more of the same as the Illini fall to .500 quickly.

Oct. 4vs. Purdue: WIN

If the Illini want to win a second Big Ten game under Beckman this would be the perfect opportunity for it to happen. However, looking at these two teams over the course of fall camp, this could be the decider for who takes the basement spot. I like that this game is at home for Illinois, but Purdue has a lot of talent to work with on the offensive side of the ball — perhaps more so than Illinois actually. Even so, I believe the defenses will matter more and the Illini appear to be ahead of the curve defensively and that means a close win at home — something like 35-27 or so.

Oct. 11at Wisconsin: LOSS

These two teams have played some interesting games over the last few years, but it hasn’t ended well for the Illini. Wisconsin is currently on a four game win streak and have won eight of the last 10 matchups dating back to 2002. With Melvin Gordon, an improved passing game and a defense that could be more attacking than it was a season ago. Last year the Badgers went off for 52 points on the road, at home…ain’t no way Wisconsin’s losing to the Illini minus Nathan Scheelhaase.

Oct. 25vs. Minnesota: LOSS

A few years ago this would’ve been a good game to toss a coin in the air over. However, the Gophers and Illini have gone in two different directions over the last three years. While Beckman’s bunch have been stuck in neutral, Kill and the gang in Minneapolis have gone to two-straight bowl games and won eight games last season. While this game has the potential to be interesting, the Gophers are just too talented and have too much confidence as a program to not win this game.

Nov. 1at Ohio State: LOSS

Ohio State is a favorite to not only win the East Division, but also take the Big Ten championship for a reason. While this may be a rivalry game with a horrible trophy, this is also a night game at Ohio Stadium and that means one thing — Ohio State doesn’t lose. The Buckeyes have an 11-3 record in home night games and as long as Braxton Miller is playing quarterback there’s no way Illinois is going to go in to the Horseshoe and pull one out at night. If it does, it may be the biggest upset we’ve ever seen in the Big Ten.

Nov. 15vs. Iowa: LOSS

I like what Iowa brings to the table on both sides of the ball, and even if they aren’t great at anything this team will be consistently good enough to at least win this road contest. Although, road games at Memorial Stadium in November can be tricky…However, this could be tricky for Beckman as by my account his record will have run to 4-5 and that means winning out to have a shot at a bowl game. We all know it’s bowl game or bust for the Beckman era and this is going to be a pivotal swing game if the Illini ever want to make a big statement in the West division in 2014.

Nov. 22vs. Penn State: WIN

Remember that pivotal moment I spoke of earlier? Well, I also see a point in the season where the injuries begin mounting and Penn State has trouble fielding a quality offensive line. That’s never good come November when you need all the help you can get. Sure, James Franklin is a damn good coach, but when you’re throwing walk-on offensive linemen out against scholarship defensive players it usually doesn’t end well. Penn State is loaded on skill position talent, but it won’t matter if the line is in shambles. That’s what I see happening here, and it’s the only way the Illini beat Penn State.

Nov. 29at Northwestern: LOSS

The Wildcats may be reeling from losing star RB Venric Mark and WR Christian Jones this offseason, but that won’t matter come the final game of the season. See, the difference between Northwestern and Illinois right now is that the Wildcats are in a position where they’ve got the parts to replace players like that. Take away Josh Ferguson from the Illini offense and picture what happens…it isn’t very pretty in my mind. It’s that depth that matters in what has become a very heated in-state rivalry game. It also could be Beckman’s final one thanks to this loss.

Overall Record: 5-7
Big Ten Record: 2-6

*Don’t forget to catch up on all the latest Big Ten news by following us on Twitter: @BigTenOT and ‘Like’ us on Facebook too. 

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 Hockey

Feasibility study suggests Illini could add hockey program

Feasibility study recommends Illini add men’s hockey program, will the Illini actually follow through?

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The state of Illinois is one of the most talent-rich areas for youth hockey in the United States of America outside the state of Minnesota. Yet, kids growing up in the state have little choice but to head outside of the state if they want to play on the highest levels.

All of that could be changing in the near future, as the University of Illinois athletic department announced the findings of a feasibility study in to adding hockey as a varsity sport. The findings indicated that adding the sport would be something positive.

“The strong consensus of everyone involved in college hockey is that NCAA men’s hockey will flourish at the University of Illinois,” said Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey, Inc. “From the number of native Illinois players currently playing college hockey to the continued growth of youth hockey players in the state, there are many reasons to be confident that the Fighting Illini could quickly become a top national program and sustain it every year.  We are very appreciative of the University administration’s willingness to consider bringing NCAA hockey to Champaign.”

The NHL and it’s Player’s Association are also on board with the Illini adding hockey and indicated they agree with what the folks at College Hockey, Inc. had to say. Additionally, the university athletics department made it clear they would be open to adding the sport, but with one big caveat — funding.

“We are excited to share the results of our feasibility study and continue advancing our efforts to bring Division I hockey to Champaign-Urbana,” said Illinois Director of Athletics Josh Whitman. “This is one of our most ambitious and potentially impactful projects in recent memory.”

One of the biggest issues would be getting a new arena off the ground for this type of program. In fact, it was the specific mention of Whitman in his statement about the feasibility study.

“Adding Division I hockey and building the new arena it would require would be transformative for the sport of hockey in the state of Illinois and for our university, our athletic program, and, importantly, for the Champaign-Urbana communities,” said Whitman. “We are grateful for the partnerships we have developed with the Chicago Blackhawks, the National Hockey League, and College Hockey, Inc., all of which have become true champions for this cause. We look forward to engaging with more people from across the state to generate the support necessary to make this project a reality.”

As for the realistic expectations on the funding side, Whitman and his department have done a great job of securing funding for improvements to the overall athlete experience already. Funding is strong for the $79 million project for the football performance center, announcing a $1 million donation just three days ago.

If anyone can get the funding needed to get the project off the ground, it is Whitman. Luckily, just like Penn State had a huge hockey-loving alumnus to fund its program, the Illini also have that potential in its alumni base.

Everything else seems to be in place for success of this project should they want to go forward. There’s plenty of in-state hockey participation, a lack of D1 hockey in the state and tradition with the sport at the university as we speak. That tradition may not be known outside the campus much though.

Club hockey is something taken very seriously at the University of Illinois and there’s a tradition of success for the program. The Illini have won two ACHA national championships since the formation of the organization in 1991 and is one of the perennial powers.

It’s a good building block for an upstart program to work from.

That building block was very important to the last Big Ten team to add varsity hockey to the mix — Penn State. It had a strong base to add scholarship players to thanks to its quality club level of hockey and stabilized the building of the program in the beginning.

Illinois 2017-18 club team sits at 28-9-0-2 as they head in to the national tournament following a second-round conference tournament exit at the hands of Lindenwood University late in February.

The Illini earned a No. 5 seed in the national tournament, and will take on No. 12 seed Jamestown in the 2nd round of the tournament this weekend.

It’s safe to say that the stars seem to be aligning that another Big Ten institution is smartly going to add hockey to its athletic offerings. What will be most interesting is to see if it will be just the men’s side or will the Illini also look to offer women’s hockey as well.

Let’s hope this recommendation is taken seriously, because Illinois is ripe to make an impact on the college hockey landscape and it would be a huge boost to the sport within the Big Ten ranks.

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Illini Basketball

Mark Smith’s one-and-done highlights long road ahead for Illini basketball

Mark Smith’s impending transfer highlights need for Illini to not rest on one big recruit as Underwood hopes to rebuild program.

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On Monday, the Fighting Illini’s coveted-2017-recruit turned regressing-freshman, Mark Smith, announced he would be leaving the program. The school has not put any restrictions on his release, but absent an unexpected waiver from the NCAA, he will have to sit out the 2018-19 season.

While disappointing, the news should not be a shocker to Illini faithful as last year’s Mr. Basketball in Illinois had seen a diminishing role starting in conference play back in December, with production only briefly resurfacing prior to the resumption of B1G play in January. Smith had not cracked double-digits in scoring since this Illini season’s lone moment of glory versus Mizzou.

In hindsight, it’s perhaps a blessing that Smith didn’t heat up even briefly in conference play, since his departure is only disrupting momentum fans wish Brad Underwood had started. Smith was considered a significant get for the first year coach. They lost Jeremiah Tilmon to Mizzou while ridding themselves of John Groce’s next-next-next-4-out monotony, but had at least snagged Smith and Trent Frazier, with even more highly regarded Ayo Dosunmu waiting in the wings.

As has been the rule rather than the exception for the last 10-plus years of Illini revenue sports, the plan did not go as hoped.

What’s past is past, and if Brad Underwood is to right the ship in Champaign, as many non-delusional people think he more likely-than-not will, Smith cannot come to be known as “the one that got away” in years three, four and beyond of Underwood’s tenure.

The lesson is easy to identify – don’t assume any one specific recruit will pan out, instead load up on every scrap of talent the trail will yield. Putting this lesson into practice is the hard part, only made more difficult by the fact that blue chips stay with a program for shorter, often 1-year, periods, than the last time the Illini were contending in the B1G.

Illinois’s glory years are too distant for direct memory with recruits, but the facilities, competition, and in-state talent make B1G contention a reasonable long-term benchmark.

While not a lot is leaving the Illini (beyond Smith, just Mark Alstork) so far, the next few months could have major ramifications on the trajectory of the Underwood-rebuild.

Retention of Leron Black is priority number one. He made significant development as a scorer, and was the only bright spot beside Trent Frazier on a team that went 4-14 in conference. If Black senses another season theme of “development”, testing the grad transfer market could be the prudent play for the fifth-year senior still seeking an NCAA Tournament appearance.

Whether or not Black goes, the transfer market does both giveth and taketh away, and the former is now more important than expected. Getting a skilled big to play the 4 or 5 is the only way Underwood can hope to spin next year as one with legitimate B1G credibility and tourney expectations. Let Smith be the exception, Trent and Ayo the rule.

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