The 2019 Illinois Fighting Illini season was…. something. After losing their first three Big Ten matchups, the Fighting Illini went on to beat a skillful Wisconsin side (ranked sixth in the nation at the time) on their way to four straight conference victories. They would go on to lose against Iowa and Northwestern, followed by a bowl-loss to California.
All in all, the Illini would go 6-7 with a 4-5 conference record. Much like the Maryland Terrapins, Illinois was wildly inconsistent. After beating Wisconsin, it seemed as though the Fighting Illini could be a top team in the Big Ten before their disappointing finish to the season.
Defensively, Illinois will have to improve on their 409 allowed yards per game from 2019. They will be returning a decent number of veterans, though, so it seems that experience could be on Illinois’ side.
Experienced players include linebackers Jake Hansen and Milo Eifler, who combined for 134 tackles in 2019, are joined by cornerback Nate Hobbs and safeties Tony Adams and Sydney Brown. They were all healthy contributors to the defense last year. Cornerback Marquez Beason will also look to contribute following a rookie campaign cut short due to injury trouble. Improving is not made any easier because they play high-flying offenses such as Purdue and Ohio State this year.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Fighting Illini look forward to rallying behind returning quarterback Brandon Peters. Peters added a level of consistency to an offense that badly needed it, throwing for almost 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns. Peters will never be the kind of guy to throw 35 touchdown passes in a season, but head coach Lovie Smith will be pleased to have a returning starter at the position.
Peters is joined by USC transfer Josh Imatorbhebhe, who led the team in receiving last year with 634 yards and nine touchdowns. This connection will be critical for the Illini on an offense that is not returning any other proven offensive playmakers to speak of. The next best target might be Daniel Barker, who had 273 receiving yards last season at the tight end position. Illinois’ running game may be capable as well, but with the assumed starter, Mike Epstein, having torn his ACL in the season opener in 2019, the Illini might be looking at some growing pains on the offense.
Overall, it is hard to imagine that the Illinois Fighting Illini improves that much over last year, especially with a schedule made up solely of Big Ten opponents. Winnable games would include Purdue, Rutgers, Nebraska, and Northwestern.
2020 season record prediction: 3-5
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Next up: the Nebraska Cornhuskers