Tradition Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for Illinois football in 2020
Editor’s note: Our annual Crystal Ball series concludes in the Big Ten West with Illinois.
Illinois finally got the breakthrough it was looking for under Lovie Smith in his 4th season. Even though the Illini finished under .500 again, they made a bowl game and got a signature win in taking down No. 6 Wisconsin.
The problem for Smith is that wins of any kind have been few and far between. After sitting at 6-4 following a win at Michigan State, the 3-game losing streak to close the season was a frustrating end to Illinois’ best season since 2014. The Illini lost to a Northwestern team in the midst of its worst season since Pat Fitzgerald took over in 2006.
2019 record: 6-7 (4-5, 4th in B1G West)
Is Lovie on the hot seat?
First of all, who knows what any school is going to do when we’re in the midst of a pandemic and the financial future at many of these universities is uncertain, to say the least. But if you had to put any B1G coach on the hot seat, it’s Smith. While it may not happen after this season (unless the Illini really tank), Smith’s buyout drops to $1 million after the 2021 season (down from $12 million from a few years ago).
Smith needs to show athletic director Josh Whitman that the Illini are going to be competitive in the West. If I were Smith, I’d be concerned that finishing 4th nationally in takeaways isn’t repeatable. Smith, though, says he teaches takeaways, and there is some evidence to that, as he did the same thing with the Chicago Bears.
Maybe takeaways are repeatable, but the bigger issue is that crazy upsets like the one over Wisconsin are probably not repeatable.
Now or never for Brandon Peters
This is the end of the line for the former Michigan recruit who transferred to Illinois before the 2019 season. He was OK in tossing 18 TD to 8 INT, but he completed just 55.3 percent of his passes and averaged 6.9 yards per attempt, which was 10th in the Big Ten. Only Aidan Smith and Josh Jackson had lower completion percentages.
Peters, who was the No. 6 pro-style QB in the 2016 class (ahead of Dwayne Haskins!), needs to elevate his play much higher than what he showed in 2019. He has a stud receiver back in Josh Imatorbhebhe, and that connection needs to be as strong as ever.
It would be tough to turn away from Peters, but if the Illini lose a few in a row and want a glimpse at the future, who would they turn to? Probably sophomore Matt Robinson, who relieved Peters after he got hurt against Minnesota and then started against Michigan and Northwestern.
Can Illinois ever turn the corner in recruiting?
Illinois will never amount to more than being an occasional bowl team if it doesn’t start recruiting better. It is one of the worst Power 5 programs on the recruiting trail, according to The Athletic.
The frustrating part is that the Illini have a good state for high school football, relative to its West counterparts. And yet looking at the player rankings for the 2021 class in Illinois, the Illini’s highest-ranked recruit is 30th. Illinois didn’t have a recruit from its home state in 2020, and the 14-player class was 88th nationally. In 2019, its top home-state player was ranked 27th in the state.
You get the picture.
Illinois just isn’t a big brand to recruits in the Chicagoland area. Aside from making the Rose Bowl in 2007, Illinois is never relevant in football (and that’s increasingly true in basketball, too). It hasn’t won double-digit games since 2001. Wisconsin does that almost every year.
It’s the age-old question — what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Meaning for Illinois, do the better recruits come first so Illinois can win more games, or does Illinois win more games to get better recruits?
Week 1: at Wisconsin (L)
Wisconsin will be ready for this one after last season’s stunning upset in Champaign. This is also on Friday night, so it will be a chance for Wisconsin to showcase itself to a national audience. The Badgers will win big.
Week 2: vs. Purdue (L)
Purdue is absolutely a candidate to throw the ball around and turn it over against Illinois as it led the conference in throwing 15 INT in 2019. But those receivers are too good. Illinois can’t contend with Rondale Moore and David Bell.
Week 3: vs. Minnesota (L)
Tanner Morgan has his guy Rashod Bateman back in the fold after he opted back in. The Golden Gophers don’t have a ton of talent relative to the rest of the Big Ten, but they have developed their guys. It’s what Illinois has to do.
Week 4: at Rutgers (W)
Thank goodness Rutgers is one of the Illini’s crossovers. Illinois should win this one handily, as Greg Schiano is rebuilding Rutgers.
Week 5: at Nebraska (L)
It would be great if we got a repeat game from Nebraska’s 42-38 triumph last year because who doesn’t like a ton of points? Well, maybe Lovie doesn’t. At this point in the season, an entertaining game would be great.
Week 6: vs. Ohio State (L)
I’ll never forget when Illinois upset No. 1 Ohio State in 2007. Ohio State may be No. 1 by this point, but history is not repeating itself.
Week 7: vs. Iowa (L)
Illinois may be evaluating other options at a variety of positions at this point.
Week 8: at Northwestern (L)
The annual rivalry game has been a tough way for Illinois to end the season, and it will be for a 6th straight season. It was a bad sign that Illinois couldn’t end the streak last year, when Northwestern stunk. The Wildcats will be better this year.
2020 projection: 1-7 (7th in B1G West)
Is 1-7 bad enough to get fired in a pandemic? Maybe. But I’m betting Smith gets another crack at this with a normal offseason and presumably life is back to normal. The West looks so balanced outside of Wisconsin and maybe Minnesota that I have a tough time telling which team is going 5-3 and which team is going 1-7. Right now, Illinois looks like that 1-7 team. Or maybe they all go 3-5?
That concludes Saturday Tradition’s Crystal Ball series, as next week is the end of the longest offseason in college football history. We can finally stop talking about what we think will happen and start talking about what actually happened.