Chicago — Lovie Smith didn’t have any issue setting the expectation at B1G Media Days just a few weeks ago. When the fourth-year head coach took the podium, he laid it all out there.

Smith plans on Illinois making a big leap this fall.

“There will be a team that will come from nowhere and will have an outstanding year,” Smith said in Chicago. “We plan on that being us.”

A typical coach-speak phrase coming from a two-day event that has enough of those quotes to fill up the Willis Tower. This year wasn’t the first time that similar words have slipped off Smith’s tongue, either. What’s so different about this year, then?

Illinois actually — finally — has the roster to meet the expectations Smith laid out.

The first three years of Smith’s tenure have been forgettable. The Illini are 9-27 since 2016, winning just four B1G games during that stretch. The results were a product of a program undergoing significant change.

Smith was granted three years to change the culture, implement a system and alter the direction of Illinois football. Winning will be the only measurable in his fourth year, however. So it’s positive that Smith believes it’s time for the Illini to start producing more victories.

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“When we first got here, we knew there were some challenging things that we’d have to take care of, and we attacked it. We went to work right away. We overhauled our football program,” Smith said. “The last part of our overhaul of our football program is to have a better product on the field. Across the board, we feel like we’re in the best position to do that.”

Over the course of his first three seasons, Smith has played a plethora of freshmen and sophomores. Now, that early playing time translates to experience, as the Illini return 18 starters from last year’s team. Per Phil Steele’s magazine, Illinois will have the fourth-most experienced team in the B1G.

Experience alone is reason enough to believe the Illini can make a big leap and push for bowl eligibility in 2019. But wait, there’s more — not to sound too much like a late-night Tupperware set infomercial.

For once, Illinois may have all the proper pieces to complete the puzzle. A huge reason for that was thanks to the staff’s persistence on the transfer market during the offseason, addressing some of the areas of concern after last year’s 4-8 campaign.

Illinois was able to add former four-star quarterback Brandon Peters after he decided to transfer from Michigan. He’s a major upgrade to the position for the program and could make an immediate impact.

Former USC receivers Josh Imatorbhebhe and Trevon Sidney add talent and depth at the wide receiver position. Oluwole Betiku Jr., another former Trojan, can be an anchor at the linebacker position. Ex-Alabama offensive guard Richie Petitbon bolsters an improving front line.

Leading rushers Reggie Corbin and Mike Esptein are back, as is top receiver Ricky Smalling. Four-star prospects Marquez Beason (ATH), Isaiah Williams (ATH) and Shammond Cooper (LB), though young, bring playmaking ability to the roster, as well.

Are there still some question marks? Of course. That comes with the territory after a losing season and a for a program trying to climb up the divisional rankings. Heading into the season, though, this is easily the deepest and most talented roster Smith has had since he took command before the 2016 season.

“The way that we’re looking right now, we’re loaded across the board,” said offensive lineman Alex Palczewski. “I’m super excited for this season to start.”

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In the first three seasons that Smith was in charge, you could argue that the expectations were a touch overzealous. Illinois just didn’t have the talent or experience to have immediate success during that transition period.

The overhaul is nearing completion, now. Entering the fourth year of his tenure, Smith finally has a roster capable of being competitive each and every single week in the B1G. His players believe it, too.

“The sky is the limit right now,” Palczewski said. “I honestly look at every single game that we’re playing, I feel like we can win every single game.”

Illinois may not be fighting for a division title or a conference championship at the end of the year, but bowl eligibility is a manageable goal. That would be an indication that the program is trending in the right direction.

Smith finally has all the pieces to reach that expectation.