The University of Illinois football team hasn’t been relevant in years and hasn’t finished with a winning record since 2011. Might that change this year under a successful former NFL coach? The Illini are given a wins total of just 4.5 on NCAA football odds, with the over a slight favorite. Here are some things I feel confident about for Illinois this year.
Here’s a Look at the 2016 Illionois Fighting Illini Betting Predictions
Lovie Smith A Worthwhile Gamble
The new athletic director at Illinois has taken a gamble that former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith can bring recruits to the school as he was hired as the new head coach despite having no college experience as a coach. He was given a six-year, $21 million deal. Smith has been the coach of the Bears (2004-12) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2014-15). The Buccaneers fired Smith in January after he posted an 8-24 record in two seasons. The defensive-minded Smith took the Bears to the Super Bowl in 2006, in Chicago’s first appearance since 1985.
The symbolic weight of Smith’s hiring at Illinois wasn’t lost on him as he became the school’s first African-American head football coach: “I realize who I am and what people see,” he said, “and hopefully that’ll just inspire more young men to dream big.”
WR Mike Dudek Will Be Missed … Again
The football program took a hit back in April when learning receiver Mike Dudek will miss a second consecutive season after again tearing the ACL in his right knee. Dudek suffered the same injury during spring drills last April and missed the 2015 season, his sophomore year. In 2014, Dudek was a freshman All American and Illinois’ top receiver and offensive threat. He had 76 catches for 1,038 yards. He figured to be a major component of a wide receiving corps that lost Geronimo Allison to graduation in new offensive coordinator Garrick McGee’s scheme.
The Offense Will Still Be A Strength Behind Lunt
Illinois featured the third-best passing offense in the Big Ten last season, with the Illini averaging nearly 250 yards per game through the air. Quarterback Wes Lunt set or tied career marks for passing yards (2,761) and passing touchdowns (14) last season and he’s back. Five Illini offensive linemen started every game last season. Freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn rushed for a team-high 723 yards with six touchdowns and should take over the No. 1 role with Josh Ferguson moving on.
Hardy Nickerson Jr. Will Make Impact
The Illini’s new defensive coordinator is former NFL linebacker Hardy Nickerson, who coached linebackers the past two seasons under Smith in Tampa. So little surprise that Nickerson’s gifted son transferred to Illinois. In 2015, Nickerson Jr. led Cal with 112 tackles and has started at inside linebacker for most of the past three seasons. Nickerson had 10+ tackles in six of the last eight games of 2015, including a 16-tackle effort during a 48-46 win against Arizona State in the regular season finale. He played in 35 games during his career with the Golden Bears and registered 246 tackles, 9.0 TFLs, one interception, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. He also played for his dad during his final two years of high school, when Nickerson Sr. was the head coach at Bishop O’Dowd High in Oakland.
Bet Over On The Win Total Of 4.5
The Illini were 5-7 last year under Bill Cubit and I see no reason why a better-coached team can’t at least match that total. The Illini will beat Murray State, Western Michigan, Purdue and Minnesota at home and also win at Rutgers. There’s your five. They also could win at Northwestern.