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Better Know The Enemy: A Q&A With Illinois

Are the Illini really the worst team in the Big Ten?

Kent State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Ask around and you’d find that most people would say Illinois is the worst team in the Big Ten. It’s easy to do given what’s happened to them the past few years. Our own Husker Mike cautioned otherwise, and saw some bright spots on this year’s Illini team.

We continue with the preseason Q&As, and today Brandon Birkhead joins us from our SB Nation Illinois site The Champaign Room.

How long a leash does Lovie Smith have to get this program turned around? Do you expect the 2018 squad to make enough progress to keep Lovie Smith in his job?

Lovie Smith has an extremely large leash unlike what many in the national media say. Despite their articles that Lovie is on the hot seat this year, nothing could be further from the truth.

2018 is still a rebuilding year. The team just isn’t quite there yet, but there is no real pressure on Lovie Smith’s job yet. Athletic Director Josh Whitman is fully committed to the rebuild. If he wasn’t, Lovie Smith maybe wouldn’t have played 22 true freshman in 2017, but the roster was also so untalented that those freshman were probably the best option to play.

Lovie won’t be fired in 2018, but something needs to happen after 2019. 2019 is year 4 of 5 of the Lovie Smith contract. You can’t recruit in college football with only one year on a deal, so Illinois will have to choose between extending Lovie Smith or firing Lovie Smith. He’ll have to show progress to get that extension, but exactly how much isn’t clear? Would a 4-8 2018 and a 5-7 2019 be enough? Does he have to make a bowl game?

I for one hope the bowl game is the standard, but Josh Whitman is very committed to the total rebuild as I mentioned. I’m not sure where his line is to start thinking Lovie should be fired, but I’d imagine if we go 2-10 or 3-9 this season followed by 4 or fewer wins in 2019 that’ll be all for Lovie in Champaign.

Where the upperclassman so bad that Lovie Smith had to start 16 freshman last season?

Little column A of yes, and a little column B of they decided to go with a total youth movement. The depth chart was left in shambles after the awful recruiting class in 2016 after the Tim Beckman firing and the awful full-time Bill Cubit hire that only lasted a few months.

Beckman was a recruiter that look to get players “ready-to-play” rather than looking for athletes to develop. We had many unremarkable juco recruits and transfers who got playing time over younger players, which may have stunted their development.

Illinois only has 8 seniors on the roster this year as well. The youth movement continues. However, come 2019 and 2020 Illinois will have one of the most experienced teams in all of college football.

Nearly everything you read has Illinois as the by far the worst team in the Big Ten West. Are there any places where you going to see strong improvement, whether on offense or defense and who are the impact players that are going to bring this improvement about?

There should be improvement all across the team simply because of how young the team was in 2017. These players are now all a year older, and many had their first full off-season to hit the weight room and develop athletically.

Illinois also didn’t lose as much as other teams in the conference like Purdue, and have brought in a big upgrade at QB with transfer AJ Bush, who even if average will look like Aaron Rodgers compared to last year’s QB play. That will do wonders for the offense.

However, Illinois can significantly improve on both offense and defense, and still have below average units on both sides of the ball and remain the worst team in the Big Ten West. That’s how far down the hole Illinois fell last year. The offense was one of the worst in major college football history, and the defense while better was still one of the worst units in the Big Ten.

As far as impact players, I mentioned AJ Bush, but the remaining ones were all the freshman who started last year. Guys like Ricky Smalling, Lou Dorsey, Mike Epstein, Bennett Williams and Nate Hobbs are going to be the foundation of this team, and if Lovie wants to stick around he better hope they show growth from promising freshman campaigns.

The Illini have a new offensive coordinator, Rod Smith. What type of offense is he going to run and will he be any better than what we’ve seen already? Do you feel that Lovie Smith’s players match up with the new offensive scheme by Smith?

Rod Smith comes from the Rich Rodriguez tree both as a coach and as a former QB for Rich-Rod, and he will continue to use the high-tempo, run-heavy, high RPO use, spread system that has simply been known as the Rich-Rod system -- perhaps we need a new name now that the offense is without Rich-Rod?

The young players do fit the system, because this is a system that is adaptable to its personnel’s strengths, as long as they have speed, and Illinois does have some young players with speed on offense, and multiple QBs who can run the ball, which is the most important thing for this system.

The one player I’m a bit concern about fit is tight end Lou Dorsey. None of the offense under Rod Smith have ever had a receiving TE like him. Ever. TEs we almost always used as extra blockers and check down options. Lou Dorsey is a great threat in the passing game, and Rod Smith will have to find a way to get him involved in this system. He could play some on the outside or even in the slot, but he is at his best as a tight end. It will be fun to see what Smith does with him.

What is the best food I can get at Memorial Stadium? What’s the best bang for my buck?

I haven’t been at a game at Memorial Stadium since 2014 and our concessions were quite bad then. Standard stuff really. We ain’t all fancy like y’all in Lincoln.

Edit: As soon as I finished writing this Illinois announced a bunch of new concessions options haha.

“Spectra has partnered with local vendors to serve inside Memorial Stadium. Fans will find frozen custard from beloved local Jarlings Custard Cup, as well as Italian food from Bloomington-Normal’s own Avantis, popular on-campus burger joint Joe’s Brewery and favorite menu items from Portillo’s.” So all of those.

Are you looking forward to basketball season?

Illinois fans are always excited for basketball season. Unfortunately, not as much as previous years. The team still has a massive hole in the frontcourt, and will likely not be making a run at an NCAA Tournament bid. The roster needs a bit more tweaking from Brad Underwood, and they lost a ton from transfers and graduation.

However, the back court could be electric with Trent Frazier and five-star freshman Ayo Dosunmu. This is a team that plays an exciting style and can put up a lot of points, but will give up a lot. At the least, it will be an entertaining year of basketball even if there aren’t many wins.

If Nebraska’s football coach walked in with beard like that all that the jimmie’s would complain about is how it will hurt recruiting since the coach apparently aged 30 years. What’s up with the beard?

Well maybe that’s because your coaches wouldn’t look at absolutely stunning as Lovie Smith does with a beard.

I mean just look.

The big factor for fan’s love of Lovie’s beard is simple. He doesn’t have much of a personality to latch onto, and him growing this beard was the real first showing of any sort of fun or excitement from Coach Smith.

But it’s also just an adorable beard. People don’t need to read into it that much.

Will you guys get to a bowl?

The margin for error to get to six wins is so thin. I don’t see a realistic way it happens.

They’ll win the first two against Kent State and Western Illinois, but they will need four more out of this: USF, Penn State, @ Rutgers, Purdue, @ Wisconsin, @ Maryland, Minnesota, @ Nebraska, Iowa, @ Northwestern.

They won’t be favored in any of those games. Rutgers, Purdue, Maryland, and Minnesota are all winnable, but toss-up games at best. Nebraska and Iowa are stretches. They may need to beat USF in Chicago to have a chance, which again, is a stretch.

I’d put it this way, if Illinois made a bowl game Lovie Smith would instantly be given a five year contract extension. So yeah, unlikely, though not impossible.

What do you expect out of this year’s Nebraska game?

It’s really hard to say since Illinois has a new offense and Nebraska has a whole new staff. It is on the road in Lincoln which is always a tough place to play. I think Frost will have him team playing physical at the very least, and because of that I expect a lower scoring physical game that Illinois maybe hangs around in for a while, but fall due to the home field advantage for the Huskers.