On the eve of Hat Day, we spoke to Brandon Birkhead of The Champaign Room (Illinois’ esteemed SB Nation blog) to preview Northwestern and Illinois. Thanks to Brandon and enjoy!
Is this the bottom?
Well, it depends on how you look at it. If you're asking if this is the worst fans have felt about the football program and it's future? I'd have to say no. Hiring Bill Cubit was that moment. In making that awful decision, Illinois Football set themselves back by at least two years and showed that they didn't care about having a successful football program. The team is awful now, but they are at least moving in a positive direction. The team is still in the hole, but at least they are starting to fill the hole in and are making progress rather than continuing to dig themselves down deeper.
But if you look at if from a pure competitive standpoint, this may be rock bottom. Right now the team is ranked 122nd in offense according to S&P+ out of 130 teams. That is unacceptable for a power five school. The Illini are also 125th in points per game at 16.2. This offense is not good at anything, but at least they are young.
People will point to the defense as a positive, but that's only because they aren't as poor as the offense. Illinois' defense also is losing games. The defense is ranked 116th in efficiency and 84th in S&P+. Some of their struggles can be attributed to being on the field so often, but the defense needs to improve greatly in the coming years if Illinois wants to get back to being a competitive team.
So to answer your question, yes this is rock bottom in terms of team performance, but it is not the bottom in terms of hope for the future.
Is this what you expected?
For the most part yes. I and many other expected Chayce Crouch to be a lot better than he was, but no one imagined him as any savior. I predicted three wins, but I thought this team was closer to 1-11 than 4-8. Seeing how bad this offense truly is was jarring, but when the bulk of the offense is made up of true freshmen, including three true freshmen on the offensive line, not much could have been expect.
How much hope do you have?
The team is moving in a positive direction. There are many young players all over the field who will improve given their playing time. There also have been a few surprise players who have really shown a lot of promise like Bennett Williams at safety, Mike Epstein at RB, Ricky Smalling at WR, and Louis Dorsey at TE. The team has shown signs of improvement on defense over the course of the year. You can start seeing a team being put together.
But this team is still a couple of years away. 2018 will be another tough year where Illinois likely won't sniff a bowl bid. The team will still be very young, but hopefully will improve and be more competitive. 2019 is when I think fans should expect to see Illinois back in the mix for a bowl game. It's almost impossible to project how good this group of young players and the next class coming in can be without more time on the field.
Am I convinced that Lovie Smith will be the guy to really get Illinois back to a consistent football team? No, not at this point, but what matters now is the team is moving in a positive direction and that is reason enough to have some hope.
Does it even matter who starts at QB against Northwestern?
Yes it does. Cam Thomas is likely out. He may be the fastest player on the Illini offense and has showcased an ability to make some plays downfield and can really stress a defense with his legs.
If Jeff George Jr. can play with his injured finger, at least Illinois can have some semblance of a passing attack.
Any impact players?
A lot of the biggest impact players for Illinois are injured. Mike Dudek, Mike Epstein, and Bennet Williams will all be out for the game. On offense Ricky Smalling and Louis Dorsey are the main threats for Northwestern to concern themselves with. Both can make some plays downfield.
For the most part, the defense doesn't have any huge standouts, but the team has been very good at stripping the ball away and forcing fumbles. Northwestern's ball carriers need to be extra concern with ball security this game.
How do you see the game playing out?
We will see another game where the Illinois offense can't get anything going with Chayce Crouch being the likely starter. Northwestern will go up a couple of scores early and cruise to a relatively easy win. 31-10 Northwestern wins and gets to a quietly good 9-3 mark.