Best, worst season for Illinois since 2014 B1G expansion
The 2021 season will be a new era for Illinois football with Bret Bielema taking over at the helm.
Since the B1G expanded to 14 teams in 2014, three coaches preceded Bielema’s arrival in Champaign. That stretch included a four-year run with Lovie Smith, the end of the Tim Beckman era, and a one-year stint by Bill Cubit leading the Illini.
As teams continue to prepare for the fall and fans anticipate the arrival of the expanded 12-team Playoff down the road, it provides a nice opportunity to review the recent history of Illinois football. Unfortunately, it has been a pretty dark stretch.
Here is a look at the best and worst seasons since 2014.
Best Season – 2019 (6-7 record, Redbox Bowl appearance)
Illinois has not had a winning season since 2014, and that stretch of losing seasons goes back to 2011. The Illini have had two bowl appearances since the conference expanded to 14 teams, but the 2019 season trumps the 2014 season.
During 2019, Illinois followed up a 2-0 start with a four-game losing streak that started with a brutal loss to Eastern Michigan. The team was also blown out by Minnesota and beat handily by Michigan heading into a homecoming game against highly-ranked Wisconsin. It should have never been a close game but the Illini flipped the script with James McCourt nailing a game-winning field goal as time expired.
That upset of Wisconsin started a four-game winning streak that culminated with the epic comeback over Michigan State. Unfortunately, that was the last feel-good moment of the season for Illinois as the Illini lost three straight, including the Redbox Bowl, to finish the year.
The 2019 team was led offensively by quarterback Brandon Peters who accounted for 21 total touchdowns. Reggie Corbin led the team with seven rushing scores while Josh Imatorbhebhe led the team with nine receiving touchdowns.
Defensively, Illinois was a turnover machine with Dele Harding leading the way with a monster season. Harding finished the year with 149 total tackles, 14 tackles for loss, three interceptions, and two fumble recoveries.
Worst Season – 2017 (2-10 record, winless in B1G play)
In 2017, the Illini were a lifeless team. A tight win over Ball State and another win over Western Kentucky were the lone highlights. The lowlights included blowout losses to South Florida, Iowa, Ohio State, and Northwestern while also experiencing double-digit losses to Rutgers and Purdue.
The offense was especially dreadful while averaging just 15.4 points per game. That was a mark that ranked 127th out of 130 teams nationally. Three quarterbacks combined to throw for eight touchdowns and 19 interceptions, completing 49.6% of passes as a team. In his freshman season, Mike Epstein led the team with 346 yards rushing while averaging 6.1 yards per carry. Del’Shawn Phillips led the defense with 85 total tackles and added four tackles for loss and a sack.
Total record since 2014: 28-54 (15-45 B1G)
Average record: 4-7.7 (2.1-6.4)