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Champaign Dreams



Scoreboard at Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL via Uof I Athletics


Volume 2 Issue 1 January 31, 2024


ILLINOIS FOOTBALL- DISAPPOINTMENT, DECLINE, OR TRANSITION?


Well, First I want to say that this is my 100th article/blog for Gateway City Sports. I am very proud to be connected with such an excellent group. And I can't wait to see what the future brings!


As we turn the page to another year. I want to look back at the University of Illinois football season.

Anyone who followed the Illini season knows it didn't go well. Even with the loss of key players, there was still talent and plenty of optimism coming into this season. Most people thought the schedule was favorable with no Michigan or Ohio State on the schedule. The biggest stumbling blocks were Penn State and Maryland in conference play and maybe Kansas in the non-conference portion of the schedule.

Many considered that matching the 8-win total from last year was not only attainable but expected. Some fans were even hinting at a 9 or 10-win season and playing for the BIG Ten Championship.


The DISAPPOINTMENT.


Illini fans by Donald Mirlie via Getty Images

The 2-2 start was not a shock, with Kansas and Penn State but needing a last-second Field Goal to beat Toledo. and having to hold on vs Florida Atlantic concerned many fans.

Now the next 8 games had fans on a yo-yo. First came the humiliating loss vs Purdue followed by a loss to Nebraska at home. Not two games that they were expected to lose. That had some fans lighting torches and sharpening pitchforks. But then a redemption win vs Maryland beating the Terps in College Park. That game spurred new hopes that the season was not lost yet. Coming home to play Wisconsin you felt there was a chance. Things looked good until the Badgers amassed 18 unanswered points in the 4th to take the game away from Illinois. Bac-to-back wins vs Minnesota and Indiana had fans believing again. BUT, BIG mistakes vs Iowa on the road and a resurgent bunch of Wildcats at Home, had the Illini on the outside looking in. What could have been was no more.


ANOMALY, DECLINE, or TRANSITION

So we are left looking for answers was this a perfect storm year where key players being gone made the difference? Was it a sign of early decline? Or was it a signal of the end of one era to usher in a new one?


An Anomaly - very possible. I mean you had a team with a lot of talent but new faces in key positions, a new DC, and growing pains. Bielema was still working largely with a group of Lovie Smith recruits and a mix of young and transfer talent he had brought in. Also, key injuries to Josh McCray and Reggie Love the III compromised the backfield. The O-Line had transfer pieces that took time to gel. then they lost Matthew Bailey in what was an already short and inexperienced secondary. So it is plausible to me that this is just one of those seasons and that we can expect better times to come.



Bret Bielema by Kayla Wolf via AP

A Decline - I think it is way too early to think that Brett Bielema's tenure is already headed south. However, people point to two different OCs and DCs in three years. Then there is the inconsistency of both the offense and defense. Only one winning season in three years. I think it is unfair at this point to presume that last year was the plateau for Beliema's Illini.





Barry Lunney Jr photo credits unkonwn

Barry Lunney Jr.

This was year two of Lunney's tenure in Champaign. Fans are pointing to the fact of not a lot of improvement. The offense put up roughly the same amount of points per game 24.23 in 2022 and 24.5 in 2023. There was an obvious decline in rushing yards, 700 to be exact. most of which can be attributed to not having All-American Chase Brown in the backfield. Rushing TDs were down as well, 18 in 22 to just 12 in 23. Passing yards were up with 3,175 yards this past season to just 2,753 yards in 22, but while yards were up. TDs were up as well 32 TDs This past season and 15 TDs last year. SO, it is a decline or just a shift?



Aaron Henry by Clay Jackson via The Herald and review

Aaron Henry

The choice of Aaron Henry to replace Ryan Walters was confusing to some as many thought Kevin Kane was the obvious choice, but, he left with Walters for Purdue. Henry took over a defense missing very key secondary pieces like Sydney Brown and Devon Witherspoon. Even factoring those in he still had Newton and Randolph on the D-Line, Coleman and Barnes as LBs. Now the early injury to Matthew Bailey did affect a young and inexperienced secondary. The difference was staggering. In 2022 the Illini allowed only 12.7 PPG, allowing teams only 273.7 yards per game. this season the ppg was over double at 29.4 and the yards allowed increase by over 100 at 378.4. It was almost an even split of 55 yards more in the passing game and 50 more in the rushing game. Was that Henry's scheme or the loss of key personnel? Either way, I think Henry does deserve at least one more year to see.


A Transition

I do see this as the more likely scenario here, at least on the offensive side of the ball. After what Kaden Feagin showed and with the projected improvement by Luke Altmeyer you should see a more balanced attack that is gound-game first but can stretch the field. Look for Sophomore Malik Elzy to big a big part of the passing game.

Bielema and his staff have been working hard to fill in the blanks with incoming freshmen, transfers, and JC pick-ups. Currently, the class coming in is ranked 45th in the nation according to (rivals.com)(the last three years of the Lovie Smith era they were 55, 59, and 69. They have 19 freshmen/JC players including four 4-star recruits—and Seven players from the transfer portal.

There have also been some staff changes on the defense David Gibbs replaces Antonio Feneles as the Defensive Backs coach and is also the associate Head Coach. Archie McDaniel is the new LB coach as both Andy Buh and Carlie Bullen are gone, they are still looking for an Inside Linebackers coach. Also Justin Steep takes over as receivers Coach for departing Greg McDonald.


Summary - The final decision is Transition

So for now I am going to say that the team is still transitioning to a Brett Bielema team. Add in the BIG Ten itself transitioning to an 18-team league, this upcoming 2024 season. It may take the league two or three years to adjust. So we could see the Illini in the mix or middle of the pack. I think the one thing though is that IF they want to move forward, they MUST be bowl-eligible next year at the very least which could be tough but doable with the schedule they have. They have 3 winnable non-conference games at home. The Conference schedule is tougher than the last couple of years as they travel to Oregon and Penn State and the Host Michigan at home. They also must travel to Lincoln Nebraska which won't be easy as that program is on the way up.

I think the worst that could be accepted next year for Illinois is 6-6 which I do believe they have a legitimate shot at. I can also envision 8-4 if the stars align right. If things go awry it could get ugly very quickly.

Next issue I will look at the Basketball season as we head toward March Madness.


Thanks for reading and check out my podcast Talking Sports on the Bleachers and the Facebook page Talking Sports on the Bleachers podcast. Hit me up on Twitter/X @tsotbgcs. or email the show tsotb.gcs@gmail.com


Until next Time GO ILLINI!


Illini Helmet via U of I athletics

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