2018 Illinois Fighting Illini Season Win Total Picks and Predictions for NCAA Football
2017 Record: 2-10
2018 Las Vegas Season Win Total: 4.0*
2018 Season Win Total Picks NCAA Football: 'Under'
I have been a lifelong Chicago Bears fan. So I will always have a special place for Lovie Smith. But in two years at the helm of the Illinois program, Smith hasn't done anything to engender any confidence that he can be successful at the college level.
Smith has gone 5-19 overall the past two years and just 2-16 in league play after a crushing 0-9 Big Ten mark last season. It's not just that Illinois has continued to lose under Smith. It's how they are losing. They were outscored by an average of 16 points per game last year and were simply not competitive at all, closing the season with 10 straight losses and all but one coming by at least 10 points.
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However, Smith does seem to have a pretty clear plan. And he is executing it. Whether it works remains to be seen. But at least there is a clear plan. Illinois had 31 first-time starters last year. They had 87 combined starts by freshmen last year. And of the 15 returning starters this season, a whopping 10 of them are just sophomores. It's a full-blown youth movement, and Smith is trying to rebuild this program from the ground up.
The Illini were No. 126 in the country in scoring last year, posting a pathetic 15.4 points per game. They didn't crack the Top 100 in rushing, passing or total offense and, well, there's nowhere to go but up.
Illinois doesn't have a quarterback. They do have four of their top five receivers and three of their top four running backs returning this year. They also have four returning starters on the offensive line, and this year's O-line will feature four sophomore starters.
Things weren't much better on defense. They surrendered 218.5 rushing yards per game last season, and they need to beef up their front seven, which is small by Big Ten standards. The secondary returns completely intact, and that's a good building block. Illinois was No. 34 in the country in pass defense last season.
Illinois won its first two games last year for the fourth time in five years. They open with layups versus Kent State and Western Illinois. Then comes perhaps Illinois' biggest game of the year: a nonconference tilt against South Florida played in nearby Chicago. That will be a big chance to score a marquee upset in front of a regional crowd.
The Illini are going to be underdogs in 10 of their 12 games. So any wins would have to be upsets. I think that Illinois is going to get a couple of those in conference play. But I think it would be a major stretch to expect five wins from this group.
I think that Illinois is going to hold firm at just being "bad" this year. But they could be in position to take a major step forward next fall. I expect this team, after going 4-8 against the spread last year, to be much more competitive on the field and at the window. Lovie is not there yet. But despite some pretty ugly numbers, I do get the sense that this team is pointed in the right direction.
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