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HEY, BERT: The CORN NATION Q&A With Illinois

I should be reporting from Ireland right now. Has nothing to do with the Illinois Q&A but I just wanted to bitch.

2021 Big Ten Football Media Day
Hey, Husker fans! With a face only a mother or Badger could’s Bert! (Over 80% of you are thinking “punch” or “punchable” right now. I picked this photo intentionally.)
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

So whatever happened to the easy home opener? In 2018, thunderstorms caused a cancellation of the opening game of the Frost Era. 2019 went okay even if a closer than expected game against South Alabama fired a serious warning shot all was not yet well. And 2020 gave us a Corona season opener in an empty stadium against Just Fields and Ohio St.

So what do we have to open 2021?

A game scheduled to be played in Dublin, Ireland moved to Champaign, Illinois.
Against a conference opponent on their home field who thumped us 41-23 in Lincoln last year.
Whose new coach is our old friend, Bert Bret Bielema.
And there’s a chance of thunderstorms.

Akron v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Yeah, no reason to worry.

Anyhow, we always love to get the mindset from the opposition and Tristen Kissack of The Champaign Room was gracious enough to return and answer our questions about tomorrow’s tilt. He gave us temperature readings on Bert Bret and Lovie, the perceived reaction to being a solid underdog against a team they just whipped last season and, finally, what may end end up being a damn solid assessment of how tomorrow’s game will go.

Thanks again, Tristen, and off we go:

For our fans here, let’s just jump right to it. We’ve got a little history with Bert Bret from his Wisconsin days – most of it on the wrong end of the scores – but he didn’t exactly keep his momentum going at Arkansas. What’s the general opinion of the hire in Champaign?

It was definitely a mixed bag at the time of the announcement, likely more skeptics than believers, myself included. He’d been away from the college game for a few years, and there were rumors of his off the field antics. But dare I say, I think Illinois got a revamped and much more mature Bielema than what the Big Ten saw before. He’s meshed really well with the team and played an integral part in retaining a lot of key experienced pieces. What I’ve been most impressed with though is his success on the recruiting trail, a department that’s vital to the success of college football programs and one that Lovie and his administration clearly lacked in. He’s beat out Iowa for multiple in-state guys that’d normally go elsewhere and that’s key to a “successful” Illinois Football team.

What are the final thoughts or grades on Lovie Smith if you had to rank them from Good Riddance to “Maybe Give Him a Few More Years?” or maybe somewhere in between?

Lovie will not be missed. He’s a great dude and was probably the right hire at the time. He left the program in a better state than what he found it and was able to get some donors onboard for much-needed renovations to practice facilities and such. But from strictly a football aspect, Lovie was in over his head. His system didn’t work in the college game and never really found his footing on the recruiting trail.

Redbox Bowl - California v Illinois
Just one last pic because I won’t lie - I’m gonna miss the beard.
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Is the expectation for the Illini to go 100% Wisconsin, start trying to pound the rock on the ground and commit to it immediately?

Most likely. Illinois has great running back depth this year and a healthy, experienced offensive line. Brandon Peters can certainly sling it, but doesn’t have a ton of options to throw to outside of tight ends Daniel Barker and Luke Ford. Peters is fairly mobile too and should help with the ground game. I will say former 5-star athlete Isaiah Williams transitioned from the quarterback room to wideout, and according to the offensive coordinator, he “completely changed” what they were doing on that side of the ball. Look for him to be a threat in the slot.

Granted, Illinois won’t be aided by The Luke McCaffrey Experience this year, but we still have a QB with turnover issues to overcome and Illinois rolled fairly easily in Lincoln by 41-23. Anybody perhaps feeling a little lack of respect for being quickly installed as solid underdogs for Saturday’s game?

The homers always feel slighted whenever Illinois is considered an underdog. In my opinion, this game should be a pick em. But it’s the first game of the year with an almost entirely new coaching staff, so to be 7-point dogs shouldn’t be looked into all that much.

Which I guess leads to the big question. Even though I was really hoping to be watching this in a soccer stadium in Dublin, it’s a fairly big game for both teams – who is your pick and what is the score?

I really could see this game going either way. It’s been a long, long, long time since Illinois has beat Nebraska back-to-back. On one hand you have a brand new coach with a successful tenure in the Big Ten and another who’s on the hot seat and has struggled in the conference. Like I said, this one is a pick em for me and in that case, I usually side with the home team. I’ll say 31-27 Illinois. Although 6 of our 10 staffers took Nebraska in their game predictions, so we’ll see!