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In Their Own Words: Illinois

Illinois has already matched their season win total expectations. Will they move over the top against Iowa?

Illinois v Rutgers
Illinois has already met preseason win total expectations.
Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images

With seven extra weeks to prepare for the 2020 football season than originally planned, we collaborated with each of the Big Ten sites across SB Nation’s platform to get some in depth analysis on what to expect for the upcoming season. As each game approaches, we’ll share those insights from the weekly opponent in their own team site’s words.

After a rough start to the season, the Iowa Hawkeyes are riding a heater, winning all four matchups in the month of November. The net result is an Iowa team sitting sort of where we expected they might at the end of the year, but with the usual surprises. Across the Mississippi, Illinois fans are in a similar boat. The season hasn’t gone exactly according to plan, but the Fighting Illini find themselves roughly in line with preseason expectations as we enter the second to last game of the regular season

Here’s a look back at what was expected out of the Illinois Fighting Illini this season, in their own words.

Editor’s Note: Reminder that these were submitted before the season and obviously without the insight we gain with each passing week.

Key Departures

  • Reggie Corbin, RB (leading rusher)
  • Dre Brown, RB (second leading rusher)
  • Dele Harding, LB (leading tackler)
  • Oluwole Betiku Jr., DE

Key Returnees

  • Brandon Peters, QB (starter; darkhorse Heisman candidate)
  • Josh Imatorbhebhe, WR (leading receiver/TD scorer; have you seen his vertical?!)
  • Almost the entire veteran OL
  • Jake Hansen, MLB (team leader in FF)
  • Nate Hobbs, CB (leader of the secondary)
  • Blake Hayes, P, (best damn punter in the country)

[Narrator’s voice: He was not. At least not once Tory Taylor stepped foot on American soil.]

Instant Impact Freshmen or Transfers

  • Luke Ford, TE (former top-50 player in the country/hometown kid)
  • Tre’von Riggins, DL (one of the top rated incoming freshmen)
  • Brian Hightower, WR (possible no. 3 wide out)
  • Anthony Shipton, DL (opportunity for playing time on the line)

2020 Team Overview

This will likely be the last time the Illini are ~relevant~ for the foreseeable future. With an upperclassmen-heavy roster and not much depth on the recruiting front the past couple years, the bowl contention window is quickly fading. Illinois is anchored by seniors Brandon Peters, Josh Imatorbhebhe, Jake Hansen, Nate Hobbs, the list goes on. Optimistically, this team will steal one or two it isn’t supposed to — we’re looking at you Wisconsin and Michigan State — and win the one or two it should. The offense will keep the Illini in games this year if running back Mike Epstein can stay healthy or Chase Brown lives up to the hype. On the defensive side of things, I think we’ll see a similar product to what we saw last year. This is really just a Blake Hayes stan account.

Biggest Strength

Can we say special teams? We’re going to go with special teams. If you didn’t know, Blake Hayes is arguably the best punter in the country. Chase McLau— errrr, James McCourt was the hero last October with his game-winning field goal as time expired against No. 6 Wisconsin. He’s also tied for the longest field goal in program history. They’re both led by senior long snapper Ethan Tabel.

Biggest Weakness

Losing guys like Oluwole Betiku Jr., Ayo Shogbonyo and Jamal Milan off last year’s defensive line really hurts. There are a couple newcomers that could make some noise. We’ll see what Owen Carney Jr., Jamal Woods, Calvin Avery, and Isaiah Gay can do with more snaps.

Fanbase View of Coaching Staff

At one point last year, a significant portion of Illini Twitter was calling for Lovie’s head. We certainly never did such a thing. The bearded wonder bought himself a couple more years in Champaign after reaching the first bowl in half a decade. The defense looked better than it had earlier in his tenure, and Rod Smith is a good fit at OC. Right now, the jury is still out.

2020 Team MVP

Josh Imatorbhebhe. The USC transfer burst onto the scene last year with nine touchdown catches and over twice as many yards receiving as the next closest receiver. He stepped up to the plate on numerous occasions when the Illini needed to make a play. The offense will rely on him heavily again.

Season Prediction

2-6, Purdue, Minnesota?

And that, my friends, is the difference between Illinois and Nebraska. There were some reasons for optimism entering the season with some quality returning players and a combination of transfer and freshmen playmakers entering the fold. While the fine folks at The Champaign Room noted this may be the last time Illinois is relevant for a while, they were much more realistic with season expectations at 2-6.

Now, with two games remaining on the schedule, the Fighting Illini already have two wins despite having last week’s matchup cancelled. We’ll circle back with The Champaign Room later in the week to see if they’d like to revise that season win total know what they know now.