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:
Aug. 30 – vs. 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. 6 – vs. 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. 13 – at 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. 20 – vs. 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. 27 – at 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. 4 – vs. 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. 11 – at 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. 25 – vs. 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. 1 – at 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. 15 – vs. 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. 22 – vs. 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. 29 – at 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
Illinois Fighting Illini 2018 Season Review: The good, the bad and the ugly
Once again it is December and the Illinois Fighting Illini football team is at home resting without a bowl game to prepare for. Such is the case for a team that went 4-8.
It was the third straight year that Lovie Smith’s team didn’t make a bowl game and the fourth season in a row overall without a bowl game.
But, that didn’t deter AD Josh Whitman from investing more in Smith’s future. After the season finale, Whitman announced a two-year extension to Smith’s contract.
So, how did Whitman get to that decision without being laughed out of the room? What was the good, the bad and the ugly?
Let’s look back at the season that was.
Hiring Rod Smith as offensive coordinator was a good, if not great move by Smith. His offense fit the players who were in the system like a glove and the offense sprung on to the scene as a dangerous group for opponents to worry about.
Illinois’ scoring averaged just 11 points, they were second in the Big Ten in rushing yards behind only Wisconsin and senior quarterback A.J. Bush finally showcased what many thought he would out of high school.
Junior running back Reggie Corbin was scary good this season, averaging 90.4 yards per game and rushing for over 1,000 yards on the season. Add in Mike Epstein’s 411 yards in just 7 games and Bush’s 733 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground and you have a blueprint for future success for Smith’s offense.
Of course, Bush leaving after this season will change things a bit, but the overall blueprint was successful in its first year and that can really help transform a program.
For all the success the offense had on the stat sheet, one piece of news wasn’t good and that was Illinois inability to extend drives consistently on offense.
The Illini ranked 12th in the Big Ten in third down conversion rate. On the season they converted at just a 34.5 percent rate.
Amazingly, it is the best mark of any team under Lovie Smith, but still far below an acceptable rate if you want to win more football games than you lose.
Given Illinois overall offensive improvement this may seem like nitpicking, but this is the next step this team needs to take on the field to be even more successful and to help that defense.
How do you make the massive offensive jump Illinois did and still miss a bowl game? You have one of the worst defenses in the country, that’s how.
Illinois gave up an average of 39.4 points per game, which was dead last in the Big Ten and 124th out of 130 in the country. Further down the numbers showed a defense that was last in the B1G in rushing, total defense (508.3) and 13th in passing defense.
It was brutal watching this defense in 2018, so much so that Hardy Nickerson decided to resign for health reasons after allowing 63 points and 465 yards rushing in a 30-point loss to Maryland.
The defense gave up 30-plus points in seven of 12 games on the year, leading to losses in six of those games.
Smith took over the play calling for this defense after Nickerson’s departure, but things didn’t get much better. That indicates there’s a problem with the scheme, the players being recruited or both.
Clearly this offseason must be focused on finding a coach and set of players ready to step up to the plate. After all, it will be year three in the defense for a lot of players who got major reps in 2017, let alone this past season.
Whitman doubles down on Lovie Smith as Illini HC
A 4-8 season for the Illinois Fighting Illini was capped off by a disappointing loss to in-state rival Northwestern. For many people it signaled what could be the end of the Lovie Smith era in Champaign.
On Sunday the speculation came to a quick end, as AD Josh Whitman did the unexpected. Rather than announcing Smith would be let go just three years in to his tenure, Whitman doubled down on him with a two-year contract extension.
Smith will remain in Champaign through the 2023 season, extending the original six-year deal by another two years.
“This extension demonstrates my belief in Lovie Smith, his staff, and the plan they have for the future success of Illinois Football,” said Whitman. “I have studied our program extensively, and I see steady progress, both in the development of our current players and the talent we are adding to our roster. To date, we have remained one of the youngest teams in college football, with only nine seniors and nearly 80 freshmen and sophomores. As our players grow in strength, skill, and experience, more wins will follow.”
It was a surprising decision from the outside, because the numbers over the last three years have been brutal.
Whitman is aware that 4-8 seasons are not what anyone is hoping for. He also pointed out correctly that the youth movement simply needs more time to work itself through the system.
In a college football era that is increasingly impatient, Whitman is doing the rare thing and allowing a coach to rebuild the program from the bottom up before judging it.
“We recognize that our work is far from finished, with improvement needed in every phase of our program’s development, but our plan is sound and our resolve is stronger than ever,” Whitman continued in his press release. “As I have said on many occasions, stability and continuity are key to building a foundation that will yield long-term success.
“With the opening of our new facility next summer, and the continued efforts of our staff and student-athletes, the success we all covet is within reach. I applaud Coach Smith, his staff, and our team for their commitment and steady progress, and I stand ready, as we all should, to help them in whatever way possible to continue building upon their momentum.”
For Smith and his Illini program, that watershed mark will be in year five, not year three.
So, how will Lovie Smith repay this loyalty? It starts by identifying the good and bad. We’ll start with the bad.
Chief amongst the problems for the Illini? Try the defensive side of the ball.
During the nearly three-year tenure of defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson, the Illini defense never turned a positive corner.
Year one was understandable, given the crazy offseason that led to Lovie Smith’s late hire and thus late installation of anything and everything.
Year two saw the Illini basically say “screw it” on both sides of the ball and a youth movement was afoot.
Year three? Well, it was the final straw as Nickerson left the program following a dreadful performance against Maryland in a 63-33 loss in College Park. He sited health concerns in the abrupt leave he took, while Smith had made it clear following the loss that Nickerson wasn’t going to be fired and no decisions on any staff would be made until the offseason.
Smith must find a way to get more out of this group, because even Nickerson’s absence did little to turn things around in-season. He took over the play-calling duties over the final four games and Illinois still gave up an average of 43.0 points per game.
What then saved Smith’s job? It could have been his hire of offensive coordinator Rod Smith.
Illinois offensive output was amazing considering where this team was just one year ago.
They even survived issues at quarterback and injuries around the pass and run game throughout the year. After averaging 15.4 points per game in 2017, the Illini upped their scoring over 10 points per game to 26.0.
It was only good enough for 11th in the league, but it was a vast improvement in just one season’s time. Illinois scored fewer than 20 points in just four games this season, while it managed to top 20 points in just four games in 2017.
Senior A.J. Bush gave the Illini their best look at QB, while also allowing freshman M.J. Rivers to get major experience in Smith’s offense going forward.
Junior running back Reggie Corbin was a breath of fresh air in Smith’s attack. He topped the 1,000-yard mark on just 128 carries, averaging a sick 8.5 yards per carry. It was the first 1,000-yard rushing season by an Illini running back in eight years.
Add in a healthy Mike Epstein and the Illini had the pieces it needed to be productive on offense.
It showed as the run game improved by nearly 140 yards per game and averaged a healthy 243 yards per game — a mark that was only topped by Wisconsin within the Big Ten.
Whitman clearly saw the offensive improvement and believed there was more where that came from. He penned a letter to fans alluding to as much.
“No one is satisfied with our season, least of all those of us directly involved in the day-to-day work of Illinois Football,” said Whitman. “We endured several lopsided losses and expected to win more games. After studying the season, however, there were undoubtedly signs of progress.”
Now it is on Smith to make his boss look smart in the face of three years of losing.
Predicting the 2018 Illinois Fighting Illini season game-by-game
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.
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.
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.