#B1GCoachRank: No. 11 Lovie Smith
Ranking coaches in the B1G can be a pretty easy task. It’s easy to place a number beside a guy, failing to give any reasoning behind his placement on a “power rankings,” list.
At Saturday Tradition, though, we don’t want to just give you the rankings. We want to provide you with a detailed description of each head coach and why he’s ranked in his selected spot.
This was a practice that was kicked up from the ground last year and, since there’s still several months until football season gets underway, it’s worth revisiting. So, let’s continue our 2017 #B1GCoachRank:
Coach: No. 11 Lovie Smith (Illinois)
Record: 3-9 (2-7 B1G)
Record vs. top 25: 0-3
Where team was when he was hired: Things were a bit chaotic in Champagne when Smith stepped through the door. Allegations of player mistreatment cost Tim Beckman his job, players were transferring after just one season under Bill Cubit and the team won just five games. Newly appointed athletic director Josh Whitman wanted to make a change.
Smith’s hiring came so late the Illini had to actually delay the beginning of spring practice in 2016, but the arrival of the former NFL head coach finally gave the program some credibility.
Illinois reached just one bowl game in four seasons under Beckman and Cubit. There were several players either injured, coming off an injury or transferring. It’s really not debatable, Smith entered into a difficult situation when he accepted the position.
After a rough first year, though, there appears to be a little glimmer of hope down at the end of a long tunnel.
Biggest win: Nov. 5, 2016 vs. Michigan State
There really aren’t many options to put under this category. The only other two wins the Illini had came against FCS foe Murray State and a Rutgers team that finished 2-10. So a win over the reigning B1G champs, even in the midst of a season that’s very uncharacteristic for Mark Dantonio, was the highlight.
On paper, it doesn’t look like much. After all, the Spartans ended the year 3-9, as well. But it was a tight matchup at the end of the year that came down to a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. The Illini prevailed and were able to keep bowl hopes alive – they improved to 3-6 – for another week.
Winning a game under pressure has to be worth something, even if it came against a relatively poor opponent.
Most embarrassing loss: Oct. 8, 2016 vs. Purdue
Even though the Illini suffered three straight losses before a home bout with the Boilermakers – North Carolina, Western Michigan, Nebraska – there was some belief that Illinois might compete for a bowl bid. Those were three pretty good teams, after all.
But losing to Purdue pretty much crushed any hopes that Smith would be able to turn the program into a bowl contender by snapping his fingers. The Boilermakers were the worst rushing team in the B1G and totaled 231 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. To make matters worse, Purdue sealed the deal with a field goal in overtime to win just its third conference game in four years.
The Illini suffered several major defeats – most in blowout fashion – but the way they lost to Purdue on their home field was like a punch to the gut.
Best recruiting class: 2017
Because Smith was hired so late into the year, the 2017 class is his first at Illinois and as a college coach. And considering those circumstances, he did pretty well.
Illinois didn’t land any four-star or five-star commits, but did bring in 25 three-star players, including a few who could make an immediate difference on the field. Del’Shawn Phillips is one of the top players of the class, and should be able to step in immediately at linebacker. Kendrick Greene and Olalere Oladipo might have big roles along the defensive line, too.
What was most impressive about Smith’s first class was how he was able to re-establish a presence in Illinois and in St. Louis. Of the 25 recruits, 11 came from in-state or St. Louis, which will prove to be a nice pipeline in the future.
The Illini ranked 46th nationally and 10th in the B1G with their 2017 class. That’s a good start for Smith. The recruiting soil is only going to get richer in Chicago and St. Louis, so it’s good that he’s already established a footprint in those spots.
What could get him fired: This is Josh Whitman’s guy. Smith will get a third year in Champaign, regardless of outcome in 2017. If Illinois isn’t flirting with bowl eligibility, however, there could be a hot-seat conversation looming before the 2018 season.
Why he’s at No. 11: Smith’s first season left a lot to be desired. His NFL credentials and lengthy football experience didn’t translate to wins immediately. In fact, it really didn’t even keep the Illini close in a lot of their outings last fall. Seven of their nine losses were by three touchdowns or more.
That’s not good.
But there is a reason to be optimistic this time around. Smith has established a strong recruiting presence in some saturated recruiting markets. He’s still a defensive guru, which is essential to winning games in the B1G. And, most of all, he’s targeting players who should be competitive in a major football conference.
Smith’s reconstruction of Illinois may be more of a process than people originally anticipated, but, for once, it appears that the program is trending upward.
No. 11 Lovie Smith
No. 10 TBA