Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 22 Illinois.
I realize this litmus test isn’t applicable every current FBS programs, but as a general rule of thumb, if a Power Five program’s only notable player I can name is Dick Butkus (because I have respect for history), then your program might want to consider pivoting to another sport.
In Lovie Smith’s first season at the helm, the Illini were bloodied and bruised on their way to a 3-9 record that is kinder than the actual visually repulsive product he was forced to trot out onto the field every week. This man coached in a Super Bowl, for God’s sake! And now he has to watch helplessly as his players are pummeled by fucking Purdue. It’s a shame, is what it is. But, then again, Smith is making a cool $4 million per year and has a top-10, $19.3-million buyout clause, so one can only sympathize so much before you remember ol’ Lovie was looking for a project and a paycheck; he clearly got both. The jury is still out as to whether Illinois, now on its fifth coach in six years, got its money’s worth.
The Illini had their asses kicked by 20 points or more seven times in 2016, suffering a never-ending list of injuries that devastated their depth chart across the board. If there was anything that could be considered a bright moment, I guess one could say their wins against miserable Rutgers and Michigan State teams were signs that they weren’t a complete waste of a program. But they’re getting awfully close.
The issues start with the offense—an offense that, in the year 2017, when dozens of offenses hang 60 week in and week out, scored 19.7 points per game. That’s insane. Only six teams in the entire FBS (reminder: This is a Power Five program) were worse than that. They did that with seven starters back from their 2015 squad, including since-departed quarterback Wes Lunt, who, like backups and Chayce Crouch and Jeff George, Jr., was terrible. With Lunt in and out of the lineup, the passing game failed to ever establish any consistent downfield threats; because they failed to move the ball or stop their opponents from doing so, their running game, which could theoretically be okay with its duo of decent backs, was nonexistent, as they spent the majority of their Saturday afternoons trying to play catch-up via a shit-ton (49.9 percent of all passes, to be exact) of incomplete throws.
Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee will now turn to an experienced backfield as he attempts to bring along either of the two remaining signal-callers—George seems to have the edge given he took more snaps last season (and ended with a 40.4 completion rate and five picks to set against four touchdowns) after Crouch missed the spring due to injury. They were close to getting junior college transfer and former Virginia Tech quarterback Dwayne Lawson to step in immediately, but too many loose ends regarding course credits will keep him out of an Illini uniform until January, per Scout. The fact that all signs point to the son of famed overall No. 1 bust Jeff George being Illinois’s best hope is, given what he did last season, not encouraging. I have no clue if the Illini even have rivals (Indiana, maybe?) but they’re definitely happy about this.
Another year of doomed quarterback play seems to signal that running backs Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin will be this team’s saving grace. While Illinois often struggled even to make it back to the line of scrimmage on nearly a fourth of its runs, per SBNation’s Bill Connelly, both players still managed to wrap the season averaging better than 5.7 yards per carry last season.
Considering the circumstances, Illinois’s defense wasn’t terrible last season—not surprising given this side of the ball is where Smith’s real talents lie—but allowing 31.9 points per game, even if it is the fault of a lifeless offense, is one of several sure-fire ways they ensured a nine-loss season. The Illini will now have to bet on massive turnover up front working out for a team that already looked as though the very idea of a run play was some Wildcat-formation-mind-fuckery concocted by the latest, greatest innovator in college football. Outside of their season-opening win against Murray State, the Illini failed to prevent eight of their remaining 11 opponents from cracking the 200-yard mark. That’s... well, it ain’t good!
Illinois brings just four players back on defense this season, none of them members of the defensive line, the only productive group on the entire team last season. Ends Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot and their 14 combined sacks are gone, along with tackles Rob Bain and Chunky Clements and their 10.5 tackles for loss. None of them, save Phillips, was anything close to a game-wrecker on their own, but as a unit, the the veteran group was, quite honestly, the best part of the defense. Illinois will now turn to a pair of sophomores in Jamal Milan and Kenyon Jackson to shore up the middle of the line while senior James Crawford takes over one of the end positions.
Linebacker Tre Watson, who racked up 102 tackles as a sophomore in 2016, will be back in the middle of the defense, now as a junior with a year under his belt; he’ll be joined by classmate Julian Jones, who registered 32 tackles of his own last year. Thanks to a weak-ass depth chart, Patrick Nelson and Stanley Green were forced to step into starting positions as rookies, and they largely held up, contributing 137 combined tackles and joining the rest of the secondary to hold opponents to 185.9 yards per game, good for 14th in the nation. The secondary won’t have a lot of depth, but really, neither does anyone else on this team; it will be up to a few two- and three-star recruits to play well above their projected production levels in order for the Illini to see any real progress. Lucky for them, Lovie Smith is their coach.
Kendrick Foster was very close to not being Illinois’s Guy To Know—in November 2015, Foster, in a since-deleted tweet, announced his intention to leave the program. At the time, it seemingly made sense, as Foster had redshirted the 2014 season and seen limited touches through that point in the 2015 season; with a couple backs supposedly ahead of him on the depth chart, it made sense that the 5-foot-9 back didn’t want to stick around to watch a dying program release its bowel contents for another two years.
But, as fate would have it, Foster stuck around after a long “heart-to-heart” with his dad, deciding to give working up the depth chart a shot. It paid off in 2016, when he led the Illini in rushing and assumed the role of the team’s feature back. As a smaller back, he has flashes of Donnell Pumphrey, moments when he’ll pair a headfake with a blinding upfield cut and leave defenders panting. While these are rare thanks to a nonexistent passing attack, Foster has the opportunity to crack 1,000 yards and get his name in the Illinois record books by the end of the season. While that’s plenty to play for, it’s not quite enough to make him worth tuning in for; still, Foster seems like a good guy, and Smith will likely work the hell out of him in his final season, so chances are he’ll be good for a couple nasty ankle-breakers worth watching.
The Big Ten is a tough place to play; making it harder for the Illini is the fact that they play in the West Division. Yes, I know the heavy-hitters—Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan—reside in the East, but the dropoff past the top-three is vast, meaning more opportunities for the Illini to score a win off a basement-dweller. In the West, you’ve got Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Northwestern, all of which won at least seven games last season. The margin for error is slim, and Illinois didn’t have a margin to give up in the first place. Obviously, the playoff is not in their future, but maybe four wins are? Honestly, looking at the schedule for potential wins is just depressing. Here’s hoping they can prove me wrong, but given their incoming and returning talent and their 2017 schedule, maintaining the status quo might just be the bar Smith has to aim for.
Smith is a shitty clock manager, sure, but that doesn’t make a guy a dick. I assume he’s one because he’s a college football coach that makes millions off of unpaid labor, but he also seemed to survive a pair of NFL firings and come out looking like nothing more than a really sound defensive coach placed in the tough spot of relying on shitty offensive coordinators to do their magic. Smith might be a dick (email me!), but as of now, he seems more like a man looking to cash in on a sweet resumé.
Sept. 2: Ball State
Sept. 9: Western Kentucky
Sept. 15: @ South Florida
Sept. 29: Nebraska
Oct. 7: @ Iowa
Oct. 14: Rutgers
Oct. 21: @ Minnesota
Oct. 28: Wisconsin
Nov. 4: @ Purdue
Nov. 11: Indiana
Nov. 18: @ Ohio State
Nov. 25: Northwestern
Correction (10:53 a.m. ET): This article initially stated that Greg Paulus played for Illinois. Paulus did play for a shitty, orange-clad program, but he played for Syracuse, not the Illini. The article has been updated to correct this error.