2017 Illini Football Season Preview and Predictions

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Illini football fans are traditionally a notoriously fickle bunch but this past year seems to have taken that to a new level. Just one year ago at this time there was a ton of optimism and buzz surrounding the program, as the hire of Lovie Smith breathed new life into the struggling organization. The hype culminated in week two when Memorial Stadium saw its first non-conference sell out in several years, but unfortunately the result of the game was disastrous for Illinois.

The Illini followed that up with another home blowout loss the very next week, and then the great check-out began. Illini football fans left the bandwagon in droves as last year’s squad stumbled to an awful 3-9 record, and put a product on the field that was severely lacking in entertainment value.

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Last year’s let down has led to preseason projections being extremely bearish, and thus excitement levels are rather low right now. The home schedule, lacking a lot of sizzle when it comes to name brand opponents, certainly doesn’t help.

Offense:

QB-

The leader of Illini football, the QB1 on the depth chart, should have WAY MORE than 1,835 Twitter followers. That’s just a simple fact of life as he’s the big man on campus in a B1G program. Games are not won and lost with Twitter followers, but it does illustrate just how obscure Chayce Crouch right now. He is the unquestioned alpha dog on the field, but not many people know a whole lot about him because of how  inexperienced he is. He’s an excellent runner for a QB, but doesn’t have much of a reputation as a passer.

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Athlon rated all 130 starting QBs in FBS and Crouch was ranked 107th. If he gets hurt, look out below because there is no safety net, other than Jeff George Jr., and if you paid attention last season, then you already know what a undesirable option that is.

This year’s team doesn’t have to do much in order to have a more effective passing game than last year’s side (they were 11th in passing offense). If they can find a way to really air it out this fall, they would at least be more entertaining than last year’s bunch; and hopefully make an improvement in the win column too.

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OL/TE-

There’s potential in C Nick Allegretti and RG Gabe Megginson. They haven’t really been all that dominant as of yet, but they certainly have all the tools and talent to be great. Combine the duo with the established Christian DiLauro at RT, and you can have a pretty decent line. They must make a giant leap forward in run blocking though, in order for this offense to go anywhere and for this team to have any success.

Illinois was next to last in the B1G in total offense, rushing offense and scoring offense last season. Ouch!

The tight ends are young and inexperienced. Go here for our link to the four players to watch on offense this season.

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RB-

It’s a bummer that Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Lovie Smith didn’t gel, because he was arguably the team’s best play-maker last fall. However, it just didn’t work out and now it’s the Kendrick Foster show, and that’s no problem because he’s rather excellent himself. Foster is very talented and extremely reliable, and the drop-off from him to the RB2 Reggie Corbin isn’t all that dramatic. Corbin can ball out too. 

If there’s one position group on offense where Illini football fans can feel secure, it’s the running back corps.

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WR-

On the other hand, if there’s a position group which was the weakest link on the last two Illini football teams, it’s here. They sorely missed Mikey Dudek the past two years, and perhaps his triumphant return this autumn can elevate the entire group. Dudek might be the most important player on this year’s team, other than the quarterback. Go here for more on him.

Malik Tuner had a solid season last year with 712 yards receiving and six TDs.

He was the unit’s only real bright spot, but pair him with Mike Dudek and you have a solid 1-2 punch. What develops or doesn’t develop beyond this duo is really anyone’s guess. Carmoni Green, Ricky Smalling, or Sam Mays could all step up and become that viable third option.

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Defense:

DL-

This was supposed to be the strength of last year’s team, and they did succeed in generating a lot of tackles for losses. However, the run defense was simply and thoroughly atrocious. So it’s good news/bad news that this unit will have a tremendous amount of turnover; a clean slate it a good thing here. James Crawford moved from safety to linebacker to now DE, and he’s indeed very long and lean. He really could be the unit’s MVP when all is said and done. Jamal Milan can ball too.

Not to go all Donald Rumsfeld on you, but the rest of the depth chart is filled with unknown knowns and known unknowns. Go here for the link to the four players to watch on defense.

LB-

Lovie described Tre Watson thusly at Illini football media day: “An extremely bright, smart football player, and you need that as a guy who’s playing middle linebacker for you. You need a leader a conductor, who knows his job and also what everyone else needs to do, and that’s Tre.”

Coming off a 102 tackle season, Watson will anchor this unit and be the QB of the defense like Hardy Nickerson Jr. was last season.

Del’Shawn Phillips is a former four star recruit and junior college transfer who flipped to Illini football away from a commitment to Arizona. He’s another strong candidate to emerge as a 2017 Illini football big playmaker.

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DB-

We had another exclusive with Charles Peanut Tillman again this summer, and when we told him that the secondary will be the strength of this team, Peanut said the DBs are always the strength of the team. We get the humor, but we couldn’t agree more. Dunlap will likely be the lone senior starter on a very young defense, but he comes off a very solid season, in which he broke up 11 passes and made 63 tackles.

Dunlap has NFL dreams and ambitions, and he leads a unit with the potential to boast three of four returning starters in the team sheet, should Smith and Defensive Coordinator Hardy Nickerson decide to go that route.

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What the so-called experts say:

The outlook from the national preseason magazines is brutal; just really really brutal. You can read all about that at this link, and it’s not exactly going to help ticket sales. However, you really should listen to the new podcast we started up here at The Sports Bank entitled “The IlliNation Show.” We’ve had a couple University of Illinois alums who work in the media give their predictions, and you can listen to their takes at the following links.

FOX 32’s Rafer Weigel is optimistic, while WGN’s Larry Hawley and the Chicago Sun-Times’ Herb Gould are more “bearish.”

Additionally, CBS 2’s Jeremy Ross (a Michigan man by the way, seems to be somewhat bullish on Illini football under Lovie Smith)

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Final Analysis, Prospectus-

We don’t see this Illini football team being any better than last year’s product, but the schedule is so much easier. One must reasonably expect this team to win two games in the non-conference and then another two in league play; finishing 4-8.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net and TheBank.News, which is partnered with News Now and Minute Media. Banks, a former writer for the Washington Times, NBC Chicago.com and Chicago Tribune.com, currently contributes regularly to WGN CLTV and Chicago Now.

Follow him on TwitterInstagramSound Cloud, LinkedIn and YouTube

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  1. Very good write-up. I definitely appreciate this site. Keep it up!

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