Illinois Fighting Illini: CFN College Football Preview 2021

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College Football News Preview 2021: Previewing, predicting, and looking ahead to the Illinois season with what you need to know.

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– What You Need To Know: Offense | Defense
Top Players | Keys To The Season
What Will Happen, Win Total Prediction
Illinois Schedule Analysis
Illinois Fighting Illini Previews
2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015

2020 Record: 2-6 overall, 2-6 in Big Ten
Head Coach: Bret Bielema, 1st year (97-58 overall)
2020 CFN Final Ranking: 71
2020 CFN Preview Ranking: 70
2019 CFN Final Ranking: 69

Illinois Fighting Illini College Football Preview 2021: Offense

What’s the Illinois offense going to be under new head man Bret Bielema? While he try to make it the Champaign version of Wisconsin? Bielema would love to create a pounding attack that controls games, but that’s not going to be the Illini early on. There’s plenty of work to do for an O that averaged just 349 yards and 20 points per game.

Offensive coordinator Tony Petersen is a veteran who’s about getting the passing attack going and coaching up quarterbacks, and …

The Illinois quarterback situation is a plus. Brandon Peters only seems like he’s in his 14th year of college football, but the 6-5, 220-pound former Michigan transfer has the passing ability to ease the new coaching staff into the first year.

Third-year freshman Isaiah Williams was a super-recruit for the program who finished second on the team in rushing, but he struggled way too much with his accuracy when he got his shot – now he’s listed as a wide receiver. On the way is Artur Sitkowski from Rutgers to make things even more interesting, but he’s likely an option for next year.

There’s an exodus of wide receivers from the program, and there’s going to be an overhaul.

Leading target Josh Imatorbhebhe is a Jacksonville Jaguar, his brother – tight end Daniel Imatobhebehe – left for Kansas State, fourth-leading receiver Casey Washington is on Wake Forest, and 2018 top target Ricky Smalling is in the transfer portal, too.

However, 6-3, 210-pound former Miami transfer Brian Hightower has the size and deep ability to grow into a No. 1 target. 6-4, 250-pound junior TE Daniel Barker was second on the team with 19 catches for 268 yards and two scores, and in comes WR Jafar Armstrong from Notre Dame to potentially make a big splash right away. Throw in former Georgia transfer TE Luke Ford, and there’s sneaky-good talent here.

The offensive line loses Kendrick Green to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but everyone else is expected to be back on a veteran front full of super-seniors. There isn’t a star like Green – 6-6, 320-pound senior OT Veteran Lowe will be a factor – but there are a whole lot of options to play around with.

It’s a Bret Bielema offense – the running game is going to work.

Chase Brown is a slippery 5-11, 200-pound former transfer from Western Michigan who ran for a team-high 540 yards and three scores, and Mike Epstein is a good veteran who averaged over five yards per carry and led the team with four scores. Chase Hayden was a nice get from East Carolina for the rotation, and 5-11, 190-pound Reggie Love can move.

– What You Need To Know: Defense
Top Players | Keys To The Season
What Will Happen, Win Total Prediction
Illinois Schedule Analysis

NEXT: Illinois Fighting Illini College Football Preview 2021: Defense

4. Illinois Fighting Illini College Football Preview 2021: Defense

It was always the strangest part about the Lovie Smith era. There was one of the great defensive coaching minds in football over the last few decades heading up the program, and his defenses were meh at best, awful at worst.

The Illini were dead last in in the Big Ten in total defense allowing 467 yards and 35 points per game. It was okay against the pass – at least after Graham Mertz carved them apart in the opening loss to Wisconsin – miserable against the run, and it had a nasty time getting off the field. In comes former Missouri defensive coordinator Ryan Walters to try changing all of that, and it starts with getting the pass rush going from …

The outside linebackers should be statistical stars. One of the biggest keys to the offseason was keeping top pass rusher Owen Carney out of the transfer portal and remaining in Champaign. He led the way with five sacks to go along with 27 tackles, and now he and senior Isaiah Gay will be turned loose.

On the inside is tackler extraordinaire Jake Hansen – an all-star who’s a mortal lock to lead the team in stops if he stays healthy – helped by the nice addition of Calvin Hart from NC State. Hart will be used as a pass rusher, too.

Up front, Roderick Perry is a veteran 315-pound nose guard and a decent anchor – even though the production from the line wasn’t there against the run – and there’s more depth now. Expect improvement from this group.

The corners are going to be better. The expected upgrade of the pass rush should help, and the experience of the combination of Devon Witherspoon and Tony Adams will settle situation – Adams was second on the team at safety but will move outside.

The safeties, though, need to be stronger without Adams. There’s experience, some transfers are coming in, and this will be a work in progress in fall camp around – most likely – 36-tackle junior Sydney Brown at one spot.

– What You Need To Know: Offense
Top Players | Keys To The Season
What Will Happen, Win Total Prediction
Illinois Schedule Analysis

NEXT: Illinois Fighting Illini College Football Preview 2021: Top Players

Illinois Fighting Illini College Football Preview 2021: Top Players

Best Illinois Fighting Illini Offensive Player

RB Chase Brown, Soph.
It’s going to be a deeper backfield with a whole slew of options to play around with, but Brown turned into a nice back last season who proved he could be the No. 1. He wasn’t used enough as a receiver, but he led the team with 540 yards and three touchdowns, averaging over five yards per carry.

He’s not going to blast over anyone but he’s got a burst, running for 131 yards against Rutgers and 110 against Nebraska in back-to-back wins – the two of the season for the team, and his only two 100-yard games.

2. OT Verderian Lowe, Sr.
3. C Doug Kramer, Sr.
4. TE Daniel Barker, Jr.
5. WR/QB Isaiah Williams, RFr.

Related

Illinois Football Schedule 2021: Analysis, Best and Worst Case Scenarios

Best Illinois Fighting Illini Defensive Player

LB Jake Hansen, Sr.
The guy tackles everything with 242 stops with seven sacks, ten forced fumbles and 26 tackles for loss in his three-plus years of work. He led the team in two of the last three seasons, and the only reason he didn’t make it all three was because he got dinged up.

He’ll be the steady all-star rock for the defense, but watch out for Owen Carney and others to breakout and become bigger statistical stars, too.

2. LB Owen Carney, Sr.
3. DT Rodrick Perry, Sr.
4. LB Isaiah Gay, Sr.
5. CB Devon Witherspoon, Soph.

Top Incoming Illinois Fighting Illini Transfer

WR Jafar Armstrong, Sr.
The passing game needs more stars. It has a strong tight end in Daniel Barker, and Brian Hightower is okay, but losing Josh Imatorbhebhe hurts. Armstrong might not be a true No. 1 star, but he’s going to add more pop to the mix.

The former Notre Dame all-around offensive option only averaged 9.8 yards per catch, on his 30 grabs, but he ran for 513 yards and scores nine touchdowns. He’s 6-0 and 220 pounds, and now he’s going to be used in a variety of ways for the Illini, too.

– What You Need To Know: Offense | Defense
Keys To The Season
What Will Happen, Win Total Prediction
Illinois Schedule Analysis

NEXT: Illinois Fighting Illini College Football Preview 2021: Keys To The Season

Illinois Fighting Illini College Football Preview 2021: Keys To The Season

Illinois Fighting Illini Biggest Key: Offense

Establish a positive identity right away – and that needs to include a functional passing attack.

It seemed like the move of Bret Bielema to Arkansas should’ve worked. Take the Wisconsin style that was so functional under his reign against the big boys on the slate, take it to Fayetteville, and pound away on the teams with the four and five-star guys.

He got the giant offensive linemen, but the running game wasn’t given enough time to build into something consistently great – Camp Randall wasn’t built in a day – the O got tweaked a bit, and none of it worked.

Illinois has to find one thing it can do consistently well and stick with it. There’s no winning the Big Ten West this year, but the groundwork has to be set to show what’s coming over the next few years.

No matter what, though, the passing game has to be better after hitting just 47% and only getting past 200 yards twice.

Illinois Fighting Illini Biggest Key: Defense

Stop … the … run. The Illini were dead last in the Big Ten in run defense allowing 230 yards per game. The secondary wasn’t anything great, either – the safeties had a rough year – but it was the defensive front’s inability to slow down the ground game that turned into the biggest issue.

Again.

The Illini struggled in 2019, allowing 4.3 yards per carry and gave up over 300 rushing yards three times and 275 or more in two other games. They didn’t exactly fix the glitch.

The 2020 Illinois D gave up over five yards per carry and were hit for over 200 rushing yards in five of the last six games. Minnesota ran for 325 yards and five scores, and Northwestern tore off 411 yards and three touchdowns.

Illinois Fighting Illini Key Player To A Successful Season

QB Brandon Peters, Sr.
He’s been fine. The 6-5, 220-pound former Michigan transfer can run a little bit, and he has the arm strength to start doing more, but he needs to be more for the attack.

He’s had his moments, and he’s okay when he gets time to work, but it’s been way too much of a struggle. His job as the super-senior quarterback with so much time logged in is to just be functional.

He has only completed 54% of his passes with the Illini with 21 touchdowns and eight picks, but he needs to be up around the 60% mark, has to be great on third downs, and he needs to lead the way on long scoring marches.

Illinois Fighting Illini Key Game To The 2021 Season

Nebraska, Aug. 28
At the very least, the season opener has to be a better showing than the 45-7 Graham Mertz-fest loss to Wisconsin to kickoff last season.

2015 – Illinois 14, Nebraska 13.

That was the last time Illinois won a Big Ten opener, and it was the only time it did that since 2011. Last year, Nebraska won 41-23 in Lincoln, but this time around the game opens the season as well as the Big Ten campaign.

With UTSA, at Virginia, Maryland at Purdue and Charlotte to follow, the Illini have a shot at a decent start if they can beat the Huskers – and they’ll need it with a rough back half of the slate.

Illinois Schedule Analysis

2020 Illinois Fighting Illini Fun Stats

– 2nd Quarter Stats: Opponents 106 – Illinois 52
– Total Offense: Opponents 3,738 yards – Illinois 2,792
– Time of Possession: Opponents 32:34 – Illinois 27:26

NEXT: Illinois Fighting Illini College Football Preview 2021: What Will Happen, Season Prediction

Illinois Fighting Illini College Football Preview 2021: What Will Happen, Season Prediction

Bret Bielema is an interesting hire.

He’s going to stir the pot, he’s going to be boisterous, and he’s going to give the program an identity it so desperately needs.

The Lovie Smith experiment should’ve worked better.

He was a great coaching name with a strong resumé for putting together big-time defenses, but it’s college football – the super-cool, calm demeanor with no rah-rah only works if you’re winning.

The big, bold brashness of Bielema isn’t exactly the polar opposite of Smith’s personality, but it’s close.

Under Smith, the program was in a constant state of rebuild, there were too many thoughts and prayers hoping a few quick-fix transfers and a sprinkling of star recruits could turn things around, and there just wasn’t enough production.

The defense was inexcusably mediocre, the offense never had a decent identity, and now the program is on a run of nine straight losing seasons and 11 in 13 ever since Ron Zook took the team to the 2008 Rose Bowl.

However, Smith deserves credit for building things up enough to go bowling in 2019, and he left a good slew of veterans in place for Bielema to work with.

Set The Illinois Fighting Illini Regular Season Win Total At … 5

Lost in the Bielema era at Arkansas is that he actually won. He might have finished with a 29-34 record, but he took the Hogs to three straight bowl games after a rough 3-9 first season.

His first year at Illinois will be better than that. The Illini will get by UTSA and Charlotte at home, and they should be able to win two of the three against Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers.

They’ll get an upset somewhere along the way – like Northwestern or, perish the thought, Wisconsin at home – they don’t have to play Ohio State, Michigan, Indiana or Michigan State, and they should at least flirt with the possibility of six wins and a bowl appearance.

At the very least, Illinois football isn’t going to be boring this year.

– What You Need To Know: Offense | Defense
Top Players | Keys To The Season
Illinois Schedule Analysis