Illinois won’t go bowling this season. It’s the 6th time in the last 7 seasons the Illini have missed out on the postseason.

Still, the first year under head coach Bret Bielema provided reasons for optimism going forward. On Tuesday, ESPN published a piece grading the Power 5 and Group of 5 coaching hires across college football from the 2020 coaching carousel, and it gave Bielema’s first year on the job one of only 4 As on the board.

Here’s what ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg wrote:

Bielema’s knowledge of the Big Ten landscape and program-building showed in his first year. Illinois formed a true identity, built around principles Bielema has always valued, and recorded notable wins over Penn State, Minnesota and Nebraska. The Illini improved significantly on defense and built a solid run game around sophomore Chase Brown. Five of Illinois’ 7 losses came by 10 points or less.

The roster still has a way to go, as Bielema noted in some much-publicized midseason comments. The gap between Illinois’ departing senior class and the younger classes is significant. Some regression in 2022 is possible. But Bielema has provided a clear direction for a program that never really had one under Lovie Smith. Illinois has significantly improved its recruiting presence within the state. The team also showed real fight under Bielema, winning road games at Penn State and Minnesota, and competing almost every Saturday.

Lovie Smith’s final year in Champaign went sideways, ending 2-6. Over his 5 seasons as head coach, he had just 17 wins in 56 games. Illinois’ last winning season came in 2011. Bielema, once the Wisconsin head coach and an Illinois native, was brought to town to try and give the Illini some direction.

It would seem he’s passed his first test. Now the question becomes whether he can keep building from there.