In the spirit of my time here at the University of Illinois, I want to provide you all with just a sense for what my team outlook posts will look like in terms of content and stats. Obviously, I will use Illinois to showcase this first. Starting next week, I will go ahead and do this for Phil Steele’s Top 25 and perhaps further down the list.
The Fighting Illini last season lost their last three games partly thanks to a lack of offense which in Weeks 10 and 11 against Wisconsin and Iowa only scored a combined three points which came on a field goal in the first quarter of their Wisconsin game. Even their star running back Kendrick Foster had some lackluster performances in those contests. They did put up 21 on Northwestern but that was not enough at the Illini finished 3-9. Foster comes back for his senior season after rushing for just over 720 yards averaging 5.7 yards per run. They have a JUCO quarterback in Dwayne Lawson who will lead the Illini on offense this season. Lawson was originally committed to Virginia Tech before going to Hutchinson Community College for a season and out of high school was a four-star prospect. He will try to lead the passing game and his receiving corps is decently good. Malik Turner leads this unit as over the course of eleven games caught 48 passes for 712 yards and six touchdowns which led the team in each of those stats. He came in the top ten in the Big Ten Conference in receiving touchdowns (7th), receptions per game (4.4, 6th in Big Ten), and receiving yards per game (64.7, 9th in Big Ten). Mike Dudek comes back after missing the past two season due to ACL tears. In 2014, his last playing season with the Illini, Dudek was named 2nd Team All-Big Ten after having a tremendous season where he led all FBS freshmen with just under eighty receiving yards per game. Their offensive line having had the experience of last season running the offense under second year Illini head coach Lovie Smith and again returning three starters should lead to an improvement in the trenches.
Phil Steele’s Prediction: 24.9 PPG, 358.3 YPG
This should be an improved offense thanks to the players having been in the system for a year prior to 2017. I look for the passing game to emerge as the primary weapon thanks to the receiving corps being as talented as they are with two players that if they play to their potential could be among the best receivers in the conference. The offensive line has to make positive steps to protect the quarterback as well. They also return a lot of running backs that could balance out the offense to allow the pass to shine brightest on the Illini offense.
Defensively, last year was a rough one as the Illini allowed 31.9 points per game and 405 yards per game. Their running game was especially weak in 2016 as they allowed 219.2 rushing yards per game, outside the top 100 in the country. On the defensive line, they are again a question mark as they only have one returning starter which is sophomore Jamal Milan, who had 27 tackles with 11 of them being solo last season. The linebackers are more experienced with two returning starters. Junior Tre Watson is the most experienced of those who was a honorable mention by the media for the all conference team. He ranked fifth in the Big Ten with 8.5 tackles per game and he had sixteen alone vs Michigan State. The secondary is much more experienced than they were last season as in 2016, 24 starts were made by underclassmen and two sophomores are slated to be in starting roles week one.
Phil Steele’s Prediction: 35.7 PPG, 453.1 YPG
The defensive line is too much of a question mark to expect any massive improvements in 2017. The entire defense though should make some strides as the sophomores learn more in training camp and throughout the entire season. I think Steele could be underestimating the Illini defense a little bit as they could stay steady in the numbers from last season.
Illinois has an always difficult challenge being in the Big Ten and for any team that does not have the talent of a team like Ohio State or Michigan it can be daunting. It should be the same way in 2017 for this group as their main goal should be to improve from last year’s defensive numbers. The defensive line in particular will be under a lot of scrutiny if they cannot have improved production. On offense, getting Dwayne Lawson comfortable with his pretty good receiving corps will be key to the passing game succeeding as well as getting the running game involved to try and set up a passing touchdown from the red zone. If they can do that, they have an outside shot of going to the first bowl game since 2014, but I think that getting to four or even five wins is a very good goal to have to set themselves up perfectly for the 2018 season and for bigger things ahead.