Previewing the 2018 Illinois Football Season

Welcome to the 2018 Illinois Fighting Illini football preview. We’ll discuss the Pros/Cons of the blue & orange, take a look at their over/under total, check out a potential impact newcomer, & see what their ceiling is on offense.

  • The quarterback play will improve:

The Illini played three different QBs last year and nothing ever worked out. This year the QB competition will be between rising sophomore Cam Thomas, Virginia Tech transfer AJ Bush, and incoming freshmen Coran Taylor and MJ Rivers. Each will be tested in offensive coordinator Rod Smith’s new scheme and should lead to a much improved offense.

  • Will be a more experienced team:

Last year was a difficult one for head coach Lovie Smith, as he simply didn’t have the talent to win at a high level. Now, he does. The Illini played 23 freshman last year and went through some growing pains. Good things came of this though, as under the radar freshman safety Bennett Williams was named to the ESPN Freshman All-American team. He will return to a defense that will be strong with the addition of 4-star DT Calvin Avery.

  • Illini have some recruiting momentum:

The hiring of coach Cory Patterson from Trinity Catholic High School in Saint Louis has really put the Illinois football program back on the map. They already secured a commitment from 5-star ATH Isaiah Williams, who made the Nike Elite 11 for QBs. Another big commitment was from 4-star ATH Marquez Beason from Bishop Dunne High School in Texas. These commitments are starting to show that Lovie Smith is the right man for the Illinois football program. If they continue the upward trend in recruiting, there is a chance for the Illini to land a Top 25 class in 2019, which would be the first time since 2008 that happened.

  • New system and new personel:

Yes, a change was needed for the Illinois football offense, as it was one of the worst in the country last year (ranked 127th in the county). Head Coach Lovie Smith hired Offensive Coordinator Rod Smith from Arizona this offseason. While this is a good thing, it will take time for new recruits and returning players to learn his system. There will be some struggles as a result, but in the long run it should be worth it.

  • Same old Illini?

If the last decade is an indicator how the Illinois football team’s fortunes will turn out this year, it won’t excite many Illini fans. Hiring Coach Lovie Smith was a bright spot in AD Josh Whitman’s short tenure. However, he has only accumulated 5 wins in 2 years at Illinois. It may take this staff 2 more years before the team is challenging for B1G titles. While this does present some optimism for fans to be excited about, no fan base likes losing. There are many factors that prevented this program from winning in the past, but if he doesn’t win soon, he might find himself on the hot seat like many of his predecessors.

2018 Season O/U Win Total

A lot of individuals around the Illini fan base have been very pessimistic about how this season will turn out. We personally think the Illini have one of the easier schedules for a B1G team. We see the Illini starting off 3-0 (wins over Kent State, Western Illinois, and USF) before being truly tested against a very strong Penn State team. This is where the Illini will drop their first game of the season. The next two games are winnable against Rutgers on the road and a home game against Purdue. The rest of the schedule doesn’t boast much optimism for the Illini. However, they could pull off one upset to get them bowl eligible. Vegas has their over/under at 3.5.

Most predictions have them going under the Vegas’ number. We say different. The Illini can and will exceed expectations this year. We have them winning 5 with the possibility of getting to 6. That would be a tremendous year for them. This is an older, quicker, and more experienced team than last year. If the Illini are to exceed expectations, it will depend highly on if the quarterback play improves from being one of the worst in the FBS last year.

Newcomer to watch

Our pick for the Illini newcomer to watch is freshman outside linebacker Khalan Tolson out of Saint Petersburg, Florida. He is a quick and big player that can create a lot of havoc on the defensive side of the ball for the Illini. He is the definition of the type of player that head coach Lovie Smith wants for his defense. The Illini lost a big time leader in their linebacking corps from last year, when junior Tre Watson decided to transfer to Maryland. Khalan will be put into Watson’s role and will be expected to play some big minutes for this Illini team. He won’t be fazed by the pressure. Tolson has has played in many huge games in high school and been a part of elite recruit competitions such as The Opening.

Ceiling for the Illinois Football Offense

Many fans were quite disappointed last year to see the Illini defense get a stop, only for the Illini offense to go three and out on the ensuing possession. To correct this, OC Garrick McGee was fired and former Arizona OC Rod Smith was hired. By comparison, Arizona’s offense averaged 41.6 pts/game during the 2017 football season. That was 6th best in the country. The Illini averaged 15.4 pts/ game, good for 127th.

A bright spot on that struggling offense was freshman running back Mike Epstein. He was limited to 5 games last year due to injury. However, in those 5 games he totaled 346 rushing yards and 3 rushing touchdowns (averaging 6.1 yds/carry). Not to mention, he added 59 receiving yards (14.8 yds/reception) and 1 receiving touchdown. Having him healthy for an entire season will go a long way.

The receiving corps is returning wideouts sophomore Ricky Smalling, RS senior Mike Dudek, and adds a dynamic freshman receiver in Carlos Sandy. This coupled with an improvement in quarterback play could see the Illini boasting one of the most improved offenses in the entire country. When the 2018 season kicks off, there is much to look forward to for Illini fans.