The progress was easy to see early in the season. After starting the year 2-1 and playing Penn State close through three quarters in the B1G opener in September, Illinois appeared to be in a much better spot than the previous two seasons.

Progress has been a little more difficult to see over the last few weeks, though. Illinois has been blown out of a few games and struggled with consistency sine entering conference play.

On Saturday, in a 55-31 win over Minnesota, Illinois looked like a team on the rise. It was a result fans could look at and understand that there are some improvements happening in Champaign.

Lovie Smith said the win was great for the team and the program, but he’s known things have been headed in the right direction all year.

“Records aside, we’re trending in the right direction,” Smith said during his weekly press conference. “We have been for a while. A win confirms that to those outside. Eventually you get over the hump.”

Illinois is now 4-5 on the season and 2-3 in B1G play. Though the odds may be slim, the Illini are still battling for bowl eligibility over the next three weeks. They will take on Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern in the final stretch of the year.

Heading into this week’s matchup against Nebraska (2-7), the Illini are three-touchdown underdogs. But Smith says that’s not something that bothers him or the team.

“We love being three-touchdown underdogs going into a big-time environment,” Smith said.

Despite Nebraska’s record, it’s a team playing with much more confidence and has a high-powered offense. This will be a challenge for the Illini. But a win over the Huskers would be even further proof that Smith has the program headed in the right direction.

Smith may not believe his team has to win to prove it’s making strides. It sure would help in the court of public opinion, though.