As the Big Ten enters its nine-game conference schedule, the Land of 10 examines each school before its league opener:
ANALYSIS: Lovie Smith entered his maiden voyage as a college head coach with almost as much goodwill — and fascination from the outside world — as any first-year boss in recent Illinois history. Of course, that also might not be saying much, given that the Fighting Illini have fielded six different full-time or interim coaches since Kirk Ferentz was hired at Iowa in 1999, five different coaches since Randy Walker’s fatal heart attack pushed Pat Fitzgerald to the captain’s chair at Northwestern in 2006, and three different bosses since Darrell Hazell joined Purdue in 2013.
That said, in Year 1, Lovie’s Illini still look an awful lot like Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit’s Illini, right down to the flaws — ill-timed penalties; the inability to either sustain drives (a 34.1-percent third-down conversion percentage ranks 12th among 14 conference programs); or to prevent the opposition from remaining on the field for long stretches (67.1-percent opponent pass-completion percentage, worst among B1G defenses). All of which is rather strange, given the individual parts. Quarterback Wes Lunt is widely regarded as one of the top three NFL-ready senior signal-callers in the Big Ten. Defensive end Carroll Phillips leads the conference in sacks per game (1.33) while defensive linemen Chunky Clements and Dawuane Smoot and linebacker Hardy Nickerson have the eye of pro scouts. And yet the engine still doesn’t seem to turn over, which might say more about the culture that Smith inherited than it does the talent therein.
KEY GAME: vs. Purdue, Oct. 8.
Pundits have circled this one as the battle to stay out of the West basement, but Fitzgerald’s Wildcats could well find themselves joining that party, too. Regardless, the loser could be in a hot, steaming mess of trouble as the dance card improves and on-paper victories become harder and harder to expect.
KEY PLAYER: Malik Turner, WR
Since 2014, the 6-foot-3 wideout has caught a touchdown pass in six games, and Illinois won four of them. In the other 22 games, the Illini are just 8-14.
FIRST MATCHUP: at Nebraska (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten), 3:30 p.m. EST, Saturday, Memorial Stadium, ESPN2
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: The worst is over, and the postseason is actually flirted with. Things improve steadily, week by week. Lunt and Turner get in rhythm, the run game gets humming against good defenses, and the Illini stun the league (and pundits) with home victories in two of the three visits from Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa, spoiling some division races in the process. A November crescendo gets punctuated by a win at Northwestern on Nov. 26.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: The bottom falls out, and Smith’s Herculean patience, optimism, and general even-keel get pushed to the brink as the defeats mount.
REALISTIC SCENARIO: After Oct 15, the Illini won’t be a favorite the rest of the season, and expectations might have to be adjusted accordingly. The bar for a bowl is probably too high to reach, given the conference schedule, but Smith wants to see improvement, and consistent improvement, as the weeks press on. If he gets that, the victories may not come right away, but they will come. Eventually.