Big Ten: Illinois
Illinois was on here last year, and let’s just do it all again. And why? It’s going to be tempting to assume that the 2019 bowl run was a one-off.
It took minor miracles to pull off the two big wins of the season against Wisconsin and Michigan State, and it got ugly late with the offense dying and a 19-point loss to a miserable Northwestern.
Going bowling under Lovie Smith was fun, but it was still a losing season.
And that was that. Illinois will go back to being the speed bump that other Big Ten teams knew and loved, there won’t be anything to be that concerned about, and …
2019 might have just been the start.
Smith made a point of suffering through the growing pains of playing a whole lot of really, really young players over the years, and last year it started to pay off.
Most of the top pass catchers are back, four starters return on the O line, the offensive backfield is experienced, and seven of the top nine tacklers are expected to be the nucleus.
But this still isn’t that great a team talent-wise – it’s not going to be challenging Ohio State for the Big Ten title.
Fortunately, the start of the season is once again light and breezy – one of the keys to last year, too – with Illinois State, UConn, Bowling Green and Rutgers to open things up. With Nebraska and Purdue to follow, Illinois doesn’t face a team that went bowling last year until hosting Minnesota in late October.
Getting bowl eligible will still be a fight, but there’s a real shot to make this the team’s first winning season wince 2011.