Head coach Lovie Smith may have the worst program in the Big 10 at the moment. The Fighting Illini ranked dead last in the conference in scoring and rush offense in 2017. The defense didn’t make much of an improvement in year two either, surrendering nearly 32 points per game for a second-straight year. The offense needed a new look and Smith decided to name former Husker A.J. Bush his starter over sophomore Cam Thomas. Bush only been on campus for three weeks but made a good enough impression for Smith to give him the nod. He will have the luxury of playing behind an offensive line that returns five starters. The defense returns seven starters, including all four in the secondary.
Team strengths: Tight end and the defensive secondary. Sophomore Louis Dorsey was one of the few bright spots for the offense last season, hauling in 22 balls for 395 yards and 3 touchdowns. He led the team in reception yards and will be a big reliable target for Bush to throw to. Illinois pass defense gave up nearly 200 pass yards per game last season, which ranked 34th nationally. Safety Bennett Williams led the way with three interceptions. Nate Hobbs is back from injury and Cameron Watkins also added a interception. Opposing offenses will look to exploit the defensive front seven and not have to deal with the back four.
Team weaknesses: Inexperience at the skill positions on offense. The offense lacks any elite playmakers. Running back Mike Epstein averaged over six yards per carry last season, but opposing defenses are going to stack nine in the box to stop the run game and make new quarterback Bush use his arm to make plays. Besides wideout Ricky Smalling 31 receptions the receivers are all green.
Players to watch: Running back Epstein, wide receiver Smalling, linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips. Espstein made plays when he had the ball in his hands. Illinois will have to find more ways to get him the ball, like some screens or snaps from the wildcat position. Smalling had over 500 receiving yards last season and will be the go-to receiver this fall. Phillips led the team in tackles with 85, including four from behind the line of scrimmage and a sack. The defense will need him to duplicate those numbers and receive some help from other defenders if Illinois hopes to keep games competitive.
The schedule: Very favorable. The non-conference slate is winnable and Illinois don’t have to leave the state for the first four games. Illinois avoids Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State from the east division.
My take: This team will struggle mightily again, especially on offense. Smith is trying to upgrade the talent in Champaign but with another two-win season I don’t see him sticking around to see his players blossom into their full potential. Illinois must win the first two games at home to gain any momentum for the rest of the season.