Lovie Smith Shakes Hand of Nebraska Football Coach Scott Frost
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Buy or Sell: 2020 Illinois Fighting Illini Football

July 12, 2020

In the coming weeks, Brandon Vogel and Derek Peterson are running through Big Ten programs for a “Buy or Sell” kind of opponent preview. We’ll keep the list here for those just jumping in and want to recap:

Brandon Derek
Indiana Hoosiers Buy Sell
Maryland Terrapins Sell Sell
Michigan Wolverines Buy Sell
Michigan State Spartans Sell Sell
Ohio State Buckeyes Sell Buy
Penn State Nittany Lions Buy Buy
Rutgers Scarlet Knights Buy Buy

Lovie Smith had nine wins in his first three years at Illinois. A fledgling quarterback room throughout, with a new starter each of those three years. Those teams were outscored by a combined 501 points, an average of 14 a game. Early in Smith’s tenure, he went the youth route, throwing as many youngsters onto the field as he could. In 2019, Smith hit the transfer portal hard, brining Brandon Peters over from Michigan to be his quarterback, and a pair of USC imports in Josh Imatorbhebhe at wideout and Oluwole Betiku at defensive end. Illinois finally clicked. The Illini outscored opponents by seven points, they upended Wisconsin in one of the biggest upsets of the season, and the returned to the bowl scene for the first time since 2014. What’s next for Illinois? Buying or selling a beardless (sad) Smith?

Brandon Vogel: Sell

If you could stop time right now—and, I mean, it already kind of feels like time has been stopped in the world of sports—would you consider the Lovie Smith hire a success? I would. Illinois hasn’t jumped up in the Big Ten pecking order, but that’s more a reflection of how far the Illini had to go than what Smith has been able to achieve. In his first season, Illinois was outscored by 146 points on the year. In Year 2 it was 193 (hey, it happens sometimes), Year 3 whittled back down to 161 and in Year 4 the Illini got over the hump outscoring opponents by seven points. That’s a relatively reasonable trajectory for a program like Illinois to this point, but this is a potential turning point. Can the Illini keep it up? It’s hard to answer yes based on returning production. The good news: Illinois returns its starting quarterback and top five receivers, including the often-overlooked Josh Imatorbhebhe. The bad news: Last year’s top two rushers are gone and if you can’t run the ball in the Big Ten, the passing game has to be excellent. The Illini’s wasn’t last year and, while there’s reason to think it will be better in 2020, it’s still a pretty big ask with uncertainty in the run game. Now, flip it around. Smith, probably owing to his NFL pedigree, has been able to lure some defensive talent to Champaign but there’s a lot to replace in the front seven. That’s a problem as the Illini were really strong at knocking teams off schedule with tackles for loss. Expect that to be dulled in 2020 as Illinois has to replace its starting defensive line. The pass defense should be improved with experience returning in the secondary, but it’s unclear if the Illini will be able to hold up in the trenches. Illinois fans will hope Smith can build off the bowl trip last season, but this season is one that looks more like a reset for the Illini.

Derek Peterson: Sell

Can I just hold? Because that’s what I really want to do. Illinois finished the 2019 campaign fourth in the Big Ten West. That probably won’t happen again. But Illinois was woefully inconsistent last season both week-to-week and quarter-to-quarter—two wins followed by four losses, followed by four wins, followed by three losses, and in a 37-34 win over Michigan State, they trailed 31-10 going into the fourth. That was with newcomer transfer guys at quarterback and wideout, Brandon Peters and Josh Imatorbhebhe, powering the offense. Illinois returns both (one of only a few teams in the West with a set-in-stone quarterback entering a wildly unprecedented fall camp), returns three All-Big Ten offensive lineman from a season ago, and running back Mike Epstein. That said, I sort of feel like the consistency issue from last season shouldn’t be as big an issue this time around. Starter Reggie Corbin and backup Dre Brown depart, but Epstein has been rather productive running the ball when he’s been able to stay on the field. He was injured in the first game last season and missed the following 12, but a guy with 125 career carries and a 6.4 yards-per average on those carries is someone you can probably expect production from if he stays healthy. In total, 86% of Illinois’ offensive production returns. In 2018, Illinois was sixth nationally in rushing yards per play; in 2019 it dropped to 97th. Slides backward don’t usually begin by jumping off a cliff, and with an established quarterback-wideout combo and pieces up front, I’m inclined to think last year’s struggles were a blip and not the start of a trend. Maybe this is all moot because of what Illinois has to replace on defense, as Brandon pointed out. Dele Harding was second nationally last season in tackles (153) and Oluwole Betiku led the team with nine sacks. Both are gone. Those are huge gaps to fill. So, if they’re a little steadier on offense, but take a step back on defense, Illinois very well might end up just staying the same year-over-year; Lovie Smith gets Illinois to another bowl game (if we have them) and that will be a win, but as the rest of the Big Ten West gets better, it might feel like something a little more disappointing.

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