In his second season as the head coach of the Illinois Fighting Illini, Bret Bielema was able to lead his team to a winning record and bowl appearance. The long-time coach lost some big players to the draft and transfer portal in the offseason, but he was also active in the portal to ensure the Illini can continue building on their success.
We’ll take a look at their offense with a new quarterback at the helm this season and their defense which lost some big names, before going over if I think the Illini can go over their win total for the second straight year.
For the second straight season, the Illinois Fighting Illini will have a transfer quarterback at the helm. Syracuse transfer Tommy Devito led the team last year, as the Illini averaged 23.7 points per game which ranked 86th in the country. This year it will either be Luke Altmeyer from Ole Miss or John Paddock from Ball State calling the shots. From everything being reported, it looks like Altmeyer could be the guy to lead the team onto the field in week one.
No matter who is at the helm in week one, the Illini offense will need to figure out how to make up for the production they lost with running back Chase Brown being drafted. Illinois was 30th in the country in rush play percentage and 55th in rushing yards per game last season, and Brown was at the center of that. Josh McCray and Reggie Love III will be the ones tasked with keeping the Illini rushing game in the same realm as it was last season.
Outside of the running back, the question then becomes who can Altmeyer throw to, and luckily for the Illini, the one position they did not lose any big names in is wide receiver. All three of the teams leading receivers are back for this year, including Isaiah Williams, who had 709 yards and five touchdowns on 81 receptions. Illinois’s highest-rated recruit from their most recent class was also a wide receiver, in four-star Malik Elzy.
Up front, Altmeyer has some strong, experienced linemen set to protect him this season, with Isaiah Adams and Julian Pearl leading the way. Overall, if the quarterback play is consistent this season, the Illini are in a good spot to put up similar, if not better, production than last year.
The 2022 Fighting Illini went as their defense went, as that area of the team was the strongest. Unfortunately, three of the players that made the biggest impact, Devon Witherspoon, Jartavius Martin, and Sydney Brown, all were drafted in the most recent NFL draft, which leaves a big hole on a defense that finished 2nd in the country in average points allowed and 4th in average yards allowed per game.
The good news for the Illini is that they are returning some big-name players on defense, including Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph Jr. The two defensive linemen were named to Athlon Sports First Team All Big-10 defense for the preseason and were a big reason why Illinois was 9th in average rushing yards allowed per game last season.
Aside from Newton and Randolph Jr., the Illini also have a massive addition to the defense, and he won’t be joining them on the field. Jim Leonhard will be joining the staff as a senior football analyst, which should give Illinois fans a lot of confidence that the defense can continue to be one of the most dominant units in the conference.
The Fighting Illini’s win total is currently sitting at 6.5, and I’ll be taking the over for my play. After finishing last season 8-5, Illinois still has a chance to grow and improve going into this season. If Altmeyer can be what he was projected to be out of high school, he will make the Illini passing game extremely dangerous and can help them avoid being run-dependent.
Defensively, the losses to the secondary hurt, but the front seven can be dominant in a run-heavy conference. With their toughest game coming against Penn State early in the season, the Illini have some favorable matchups in the rest of conference play, including Indiana, Northwestern, Purdue, and Nebraska. If they can win those four games and two out of their three non-conference games, they would just need to beat Maryland, Minnesota, or Iowa on the road, which is doable.
Over 6.5 Wins