The Illinois football program has a new coach with a big name. With Lovie Smith coming in to take over the reins and the return of senior quarterback Wes Lunt, the Fighting Illini hope to make a push for a bowl game in 2016.
It won’t be easy, as the team must battle a tough Big Ten conference slate and will have to replace a pair of key offensive playmakers in running back Josh Ferguson and wide receiver Geronimo Allison. Smith is known for his defensive ingenuity, and if he can get his players on the same page early it would be a big boost to the team’s hopes.
2015 Record: 5-7 SU, 5-7 ATS, 4-8 O/U
2016 Regular Season Win Total: 4.5
National Championship Odds: +20000
Big Ten Odds: +7500
Illinois got off to a nice start in 2015, beginning with four wins in its first five games, including a one-point win over conference foe Nebraska. However, the wheels came off from there as Illinois lost six of its final seven games to finish 5-7 on the year. The Fighting Illini had a chance to become bowl eligible with a victory in their season finale against Northwestern but fell 24-14.
The offense was the main culprit for Illinois, as it averaged only 22.7 points on the season, which was 103rd nationally. That included getting shut out by Penn State and then only three points two weeks later against Ohio State. Quarterback Wes Lunt finished the season throwing for 2,761 yards with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. Ke’Shawn Ferguson led the rushing attack with 723 yards on the ground and six touchdowns, while Josh Ferguson added 708 rushing yards and five total scores. Geronimo Allison was the leading receiver with 65 catches for 882 yards and three touchdowns.
T.J. Neal was a big part of the defense, registering 109 tackles, including 15 for loss. Taylor Barton had a team-high four interceptions and added a fumble recovery. Dawuane Smoot was the most consistent pass-rusher, accumulating seven sacks on the season.
Illinois was competitive for a section of the schedule but couldn’t maintain it through the conference slate and ended up missing out on a bowl game because of the poor finish.
The hire of former NFL coach Lovie Smith has certainly raised the profile of Illinois heading into 2016, but the projections are pessimistic that he can turn the program around quickly.
While quarterback Wes Lunt is back, he hasn’t put up huge numbers during his career and will need a breakout senior season for the offense to appreciably improve. With leading rusher Ke’Shawn Vaughn back, Illinois will aim to have a balanced offensive attack, and they could use another running back with Josh Ferguson departing. Malik Turner showed some impressive flashes when catching 39 passes for 510 yards and three touchdowns and could be Lunt’s favorite target in 2015.
The offense suffered a big blow when Mike Dudek, who broke a freshman receiving record with 1,038 yards in 2014, tore his ACL during the spring, which will cost him the season.
Dawuane Smoot returns this year to lead a defensive line in which three starters return. Hardy Nickerson had 112 tackles last season with California and should give the defense an immediate boost as a graduate transfer. Taylor Barton is back after hauling in four interceptions last season and will aim to increase that number in 2016.
Returning Starters Offense: 7
Much of the team’s offensive improvement will be on the shoulder of quarterback Wes Lunt. While he hasn’t put up big numbers thus far in his career, he has still done a solid job taking care of the ball. If Lunt can increase his passing efficiency and keep the turnover numbers down, it will be a big boost.
Returning Starters Defense: 5
Defenses are predicated on pressure, and having three starters back on the defensive line is a nice starting point. Dawuane Smoot hopes to reach double-digit sacks in 2016 after coming close a season ago. This should be the strength of the team once again this year.
Week 1: vs. Murray State Racers, Saturday, September 3, 3:30 p.m. ET - Big Ten Network
Week 2: vs. North Carolina Tar Heels, Saturday, September 10, 7:30 p.m. ET - ESPN
Week 3: vs. Western Michigan Broncos, Saturday, September 17, 4 p.m. ET - ESPNews
Week 4: OFF
Week 5: at Nebraska Cornhuskers, Saturday, October 1, 3:30 p.m. ET
Week 6: vs. Purdue Boilermakers, Saturday, October 8, TBD
Week 7: at Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Saturday, October 15, 12 p.m. ET
Week 8: at Michigan Wolverines, Saturday, October 22, 3:30 p.m. ET
Week 9: vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers, Saturday, October 29, TBD
Week 10: vs. Michigan State Spartans, Saturday, November 5, TBD
Week 11: at at Wisconsin Badgers, Saturday, November 12, 3:30 p.m. ET
Week 12: vs. Iowa Hawkeyes, Saturday, November 19, TBD
Week 13: at Northwestern Wildcats, Saturday November 26, TBD
|SEC Conference||Big 10 Conference|
|ACC Conference||Big 12 Conference|
|Pac 12 Conference||Big East Conference|
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