Illinois went 3-9 (2-7) in Coach Lovie Smith’s first season and must replace 13 starters in 2017. With so much change to the roster, this might be the season when Smith’s vision for Illini football really becomes apparent. That said, Illinois may have to get a little worse (or stay the same) before it’s fully ready to get better.
Illinois ranked third in the Big Ten in adjusted (sacks counted as passes) rushing yards per play, and the top two rushers last year — Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin — return as do three starters on the offensive line. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the quarterback situation could be a mess. Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. alternated in the spring, and Illinois if neither separates himself the Illini could pin a lot of hope on junior-college transfer Dwayne Lawson, who spent a year at Virginia Tech. Lawson has yet to enroll and if the Illini don’t have some quarterback emerge to offer a viable passing threat, that good-on-paper running game might find the yards tough to come by.
Illinois had an uber-talented defensive line in 2016. Defensive end Dawuane Smoot went in the fourth round to the Jaguars, but the three other senior starters on the line all recorded at least 3.5 sacks of their own. Throw in leading tackler Hardy Nickerson Jr. at linebacker and it was a solid front, but the Illini still finished below average in the Big Ten in adjusted rush, pass and total defense. And all five of those guys — Nickerson plus the entire defensive line — are now gone. A young secondary should be better equipped to defend the pass in 2017, but this is almost a reset for Smith, an admittedly accomplished defensive mind, in year two.
An opener against Ball State should be a “soft open,” but things ramp up quickly after that. Defending Conference USA champ Western Kentucky visits in week two and week three brings a road trip to AAC favorite USF. After that, the Illini might only be favored in two or three Big Ten games based on what we know now.
If this was year three or four of the Smith era, the trend for 2017 would clearly be down. Questions at quarterback, key pieces missing in the front seven and a tough schedule all keep projections pretty low. Because it’s only year two, however, we’ll keep this one FLAT and wait and see if Smith’s identity shows through at some point.