Big Ten: Illinois
At some point this whole thing is going to work under Lovie Smith.
He’s forced young players into the system all across the board during his tenure, and now there’s a good mix of decent veterans, depth, and enough talented parts to finally turn a corner.
The quarterback situation has to improve, but the lines are as good as they’ve been in the Smith era, and in all, ten starters return on defense.
The experience has to translate into production, though.
The Fighting Illini were dead last in the Big Ten in total D – allowing 508 yards and 39 points per game – but the running game worked, and again, there’s a whole lot of experience.
Even with all of the problems and issues, Illinois was 4-8 with a total gag of a loss to USF. This year, the team should be good enough to be two wins better. Consistency will be the key for a team that hung up 55 points in a win over Minnesota and got roasted by Iowa 63-0 just two weeks later.
A hot start is a must with Akron, at UConn, and Eastern Michigan – blowing off the upset win over Purdue last year – to kick things off before hosting Nebraska. Throw in a home date against Rutgers, and hope for a few upsets along the way, and there’s a decent chance for the first winning season since 2011.