Crystal Ball: Predicting every game on Illinois’ schedule in 2021
Editor’s note: Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series concludes today with Illinois and Nebraska.
Illinois had to make a change. Lovie Smith’s message clearly wasn’t resonating in the locker room or on the recruiting trail. He is a great coach and did very well with the Chicago Bears, but the college game isn’t for everyone.
The Illini did the best they possibly could in hiring Bret Bielema (more on that below). He should provide a much-needed jolt to this program that has underachieved.
Illinois is not a hotbed for high school football in the same way it is for high school basketball. But it is still a big state with plenty of talent. A good coach can most certainly win at Illinois.
A flagship school like Illinois should not be getting 0 of the top 25 recruits in the state. That was the reality for the Illini’s 2021 recruiting class. In 2020, Illinois didn’t have a single recruit from its own state. How is that even possible? In 2019, it didn’t have any of the top 12 recruits from its own state.
Illinois had become irrelevant in its own state, and it’s not hard to see why. The Illini have been to 1 bowl game in the last 6 years and hasn’t had a winning season since 2011. Other than a trip to the Rose Bowl in 2007 and a Sugar Bowl trip in 2002, Illinois football hasn’t done anything in the 21st century.
And let’s be clear, the Big Ten West is not the SEC West. Northwestern has won the division in 2 of the last 3 years. There is an opportunity here.
Bielema is the man for the job
I don’t think Illinois could’ve made a better hire than Bret Bielema. He’s someone who knows the Big Ten West intimately, having coached Wisconsin for 7 years and averaged nearly 10 wins per season — and also having played at Iowa. Those are the 2 best programs in the West, which Illinois has to contend with every year.
Bielema is also coming in with a ton of motivation after flaming out at Arkansas, going 29-34 in 5 seasons. He seems humbled now at a program with not near as much fanfare as Wisconsin and Arkansas. He has a lot to prove.
Having spent 3 seasons in the NFL, 2 of which were with Bill Belichick, he comes in with a renewed perspective.
Illinois returned 20 of 25 seniors from last year’s roster (thanks to the free year of eligibility due to the pandemic). There are 17 returning scholarship seniors from last year, which is the most among Power 5 teams. All-B1G defensive end Owen Carney entered the transfer portal after the coaching change, but Bielema convinced him to return to Illinois. I think it is no small feat for Bielema to get so many players to return to the program after the coaching change. I think it shows that players believe in his vision.
It will take time and some patience, but Bielema will get this program on the right track.
The goal should be to have a Rutgers-type season
Illinois isn’t going to contend in the West and it probably isn’t going to a bowl game. But that doesn’t mean this can’t be a meaningful and impactful season to build for the future.
Look at how Rutgers was able to lay a foundation in Greg Schiano’s first season. The Scarlet Knights went 3-6 and were a few plays away from being 6-3. They are no longer the punching bag in the East in the way that the Illini are in the West. Rutgers has the No. 4 class in the Big Ten in 2022 (though that is subject to change), which is evidence that Schiano is building something. Bielema’s goal should be the same for the 2021 season.
Brandon Peters should be better in 2021
There are much worse QB situations for a 1st-year coach to walk into. Peters hasn’t been a star by any means, but the former Michigan transfer has a ton of experience. When Peters played the entire season, Illinois made a bowl game.
I’m not putting too much stock into last season. It was disjointed from start to finish, and Peters missed 3 games due to COVID. His numbers (48.8 completion percentage and only 5.4 yards per attempt) were subpar in 2020, and I think he’ll get closer to 2019 (55.3 completion percentage and 6.9 yards per attempt).
It will be interesting to see if Illinois can figure out how to use Isaiah Williams at wideout after he made the transition from QB. He is a terrific athlete. That would help bolster a depleted wide receiver room and give Peters a weapon in the pass game. Other than that, Peters’ best target may be tight end Daniel Barker. Chase Brown will be called upon to lead the Illini offense out of the backfield.
Week 0: vs. Nebraska (L)
I’ve been thinking about this game all offseason. For one, I’m very excited because the stakes are so high, and I think a lot of folks from around the country will be watching. More than that, though, is that I think it’ll be a good game.
Illinois whooped Nebraska last year as a 16-point underdog. And Illinois was not good last season. With Bret Bielema now in charge, the game being at home and with Nebraska suffering from another round of negative headlines thanks to the NCAA investigation and the sudden resignation of its athletic director, it is so tempting to pick Illinois. But I’m going with Nebraska.
This is the first game for the Illini, and while I think they’ll improve a ton throughout the season, I think that will take time. Also, this feels like do-or-die for Nebraska and Scott Frost, so I’ll go with the more desperate team.
Week 1: vs. UTSA (W)
This is going to be a tougher game than you think for the Illini. UTSA is coming off a 7-5 season and a bowl-game appearance, plus it has 21 starters back.
Week 2: at Virginia (L)
The Cavaliers have been steadily improving under Bronco Mendenhall, and they are technically the defending ACC Coastal champions since there were no divisions in the ACC last year. I’ll take the home team in a close one.
Week 3: vs. Maryland (L)
The Illinois defense will be challenged big time in this one, as Taulia Tagovailoa will be one of the best QBs that it sees this season. Since the secondary is the Illini’s biggest weakness, Maryland could put up some big offensive numbers.
Week 4: at Purdue (L)
With the same line of thinking as the Maryland game, I think Illinois will have a tough time against good passing attacks.
Week 5: vs. Charlotte (W)
Charlotte has only 13 returning starters and isn’t expected to contend in Conference USA. The Illini should be able to take care of business at home.
Week 6: vs. Wisconsin (L)
Is a repeat of 2019 coming? No, I don’t think so. I also don’t think Illinois will get embarrassed as badly as last season when Graham Mertz threw 5 TD passes in the 45-7 shellacking.
Week 7: Bye
Week 8: at Penn State (L)
This was another rough one last year, and while I think Illinois will be more competitive with Bielema, I don’t anticipate it being close, especially with Penn State coming off a bye.
Week 9: vs. Rutgers (L)
Illinois ruined some good vibes that Rutgers had going by rushing for 342 yards and kicking a game-winning field goal with 3 seconds left. Rutgers, off a bye, will be rested and ready this year, though.
Week 10: at Minnesota (L)
Illinois doesn’t match up well with Minnesota at all, that much has been clear the last 2 seasons. The Golden Gophers have won by an average of 25 points.
Week 11: Bye
Week 12: at Iowa (L)
Bielema will want to keep that tattoo covered on this trip. This will be a great measuring stick game. After a bye, what kind of focus and intensity does Illinois play with against a really good team?
Week 13: vs. Northwestern (W)
This is the year the Illini get off the schneid and finally beat Northwestern after 6 straight losses.
2021 projection: 3-9, 7th in B1G West
I’m projecting a tough first season for Bielema in terms of wins and losses, but like I said, it’s more about how competitive Illinois is and how the perception changes.
Illinois doesn’t necessarily have to win a ton of games this year, but it needs to do better than losing by 18 points or more in 5 of 8 games, like it did last year.