10 bold predictions for Illinois in 2020
Illinois took a big step forward in 2019, getting itself bowl eligible for the first time in the Lovie Smith Era.
Now, perhaps the challenge becomes even greater as Illinois looks to build on the success to climb up the Big Ten West ladder. What will it take?
Let’s take a look at 10 bold predictions for Illinois:
1. Brandon Peters will complete 60 percent of his passes
The former Michigan quarterback is hoping he can take a big step forward in Year 2 in Champaign after a roller coaster of a first season with the Illini. There’s reason to think he can. Not the most athletic quarterback, Peters worked during the offseason on his footwork and accuracy — even getting some one-on-one time with NFL Hall of Fame QB Kurt Warner — to try to even out his week-to-week performances. Specifically, he’d like to see the completion percentage, only 55.3 last season, take a significant jump. If he can get it to 60, or maybe 65, he could and should cash in on the talent that made him such a highly coveted quarterback out of Indiana.
2. Mike Epstein will play in every game for the Illini
The junior running back’s career at Illinois has been besieged by injuries, preventing the once-heralded Florida prep star from fully reaching his potential in Champaign. And after missing games in his first three seasons, including all but the opener last year when he suffered a knee injury against Akron, perhaps it won’t happen. But in 2020, the 6-foot, 205-pounder will stay on the field, maybe not as a starter, but in the rotation at running back. The Fighting Illini certainly could use him, needing to replace nearly 1,500 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns from last season.
3. We will all learn how to pronounce Josh Imatorbhebhe’s name
It’s ee-MAT-or-bay-bay, and we all should know it. The senior receiver burst onto the scene last season, his first eligible since transferring from USC, with his big-play potential. The 6-2, 220-pounder had 9 touchdowns, 2nd on the single-season list in Illinois football history, on only 33 receptions, averaging a robust 19.2 yards per catch, which ranked 3rd in the Big Ten. Imatorbhebhe piled up the numbers in 11 starts last season, missing the last 3 Illinois games with an injury. He was a stud in Illinois’ miraculous comeback victory at Michigan State, going for 183 yards and a touchdown on only 4 receptions. Expect more of the same this season.
4. Illinois will win more games on the road than at home
The Illinois’ home slate isn’t easy: Purdue, No. 25 Minnesota, No. 6 Ohio State and Iowa. Perhaps the road schedule, outside of the opener at No. 16 Wisconsin, offers more room to pick up victories, with November trips to Rutgers and Nebraska then the Dec. 12 scheduled finale at rival Northwestern.
5. Transfer Luke Ford will catch two dozen balls
After sitting a year due to his transfer from Georgia, the big tight end is eager to see the field again. Ford hasn’t played much in the last 2 seasons, having only 1 catch for the Bulldogs during 2018, then sitting out last year. The Illinois native, the No. 51 recruit in the nation in the Class of 2018 via 247Sports, has big expectations, even going so far as to say he’ll leave early for the NFL after this season, or at least next. Here’s saying he makes a big move toward the goal.
6. D-line remains a big question
In the Big Ten West, it’s imperative to be able to stop opponents at the line of scrimmage. Can Illinois? The Fighting Illini lost 43 of 52 starts from a defensive line that wasn’t very good in 2019, finishing 13th in sacks and in rushing yards allowed. That’s not a recipe for consistent winning.
7. The passing game, statistically, will make a big jump
Illinois ranked only 11th in passing yardage per game last season, throwing for 185.3. But with Peters being in his second year, and expectations higher for the strong right-hander, plus the addition of Ford, development of Imatorbhebhe and others, it’s reasonable to think that the Fighting Illini passing attack should jump at least into the middle of the pack in the Big Ten.
8. James McCourt will hit a 60-yard FG
And why not? The dude has a monster leg, hitting a career-long 57-yarder last season, tied for the longest in school history. He had 3 of at least 50 yards, including a 53-yarder vs. UConn — remember UConn? — and a 50-yarder against Michigan. Illinois is certainly wiling to send the senior out for long attempts — he attempted 11 of 40 yards or longer.
9. Illinois will score another big upset
Illinois might tell you it thought it could beat Wisconsin last season. It might have been the only one with such a thought. And it might have been lying. Yet the Fighting Illini pulled off one of the country’s biggest upsets in 2019 — heck, maybe of the last decade — when it was a 30-point underdog to Wisconsin yet won on a last-second field goal. It won’t be in as dramatic a fashion, but Illinois will pull off another one in 2020, so Wisconsin (again), Minnesota and Ohio State should be on the lookout.
10. Lovie Smith will regrow the beard and we’ll all be better for it
In one of the more stunning and disappointing offseason developments — and that says a lot considering the craziness of the last several months — the Illinois boss showed up in May with a clean-shaven look, ridding himself of the glorious, thick, white beard that he sported last season. The sports world mourned. It needs to return.