It’s been five long years since the last time Illinois Fighting Illini football has touched a postseason bowl game. 82 out of 130 FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision, the top tier of college football) teams make a postseason bowl game, effectively meaning that Illinois has been in the bottom 50 of the FBS.
Furthermore, only two other Power Five conference (one of the five major conferences in college football, the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, ACC, Pac 12) teams, Kansas and Oregon State, have had a postseason bowl drought for as long as Illinois has, effectively meaning that Illinois has been one of the absolute worst Power Five football teams.
This troubling information begs the question Illini football fans have wondered since Lovie Smith was hired as head coach three years ago. ‘Is this the year?’ Well, yes and no. Yes, this is Illinois’s best chance to make a bowl game in the Lovie era. No, it’s not necessary for the Illini to make one for Lovie to keep his job.
It won’t be incredibly hard to improve on last season. Antithetical to the smash-mouth defensive style that made Lovie Smith a head coach in the NFL, the Illini defense was porous and weak to put it kindly last season, placing 124th out of 130 FBS teams in overall team defense according to sports-reference.com’s rankings. Avoiding gargantuan losses, such as last year’s home defeats to Iowa (63-0 on senior day, probably the worst game of football I have ever seen) and Purdue (46-7, on homecoming weekend) will also keep Lovie’s proverbial hot seat fairly cool.
Speaking to media at the annual Illinois football media day, Lovie acknowledged his team’s lack of defensive bite compared to the teams he coached in the NFL. “I used to be known for (creating take-aways/turnovers), that used to be my background. We have to be able to make those plays. It’s not enough to stop the opponent or hit them hard. We have to get the ball back to score, and we haven’t done that enough.”
A blow to the defense, both on and off the field, is the loss of All-Big Ten defensive lineman Bobby Roundtree this season. Roundtree suffered an awful spinal injury while swimming this offseason, and has been in hospital care since. He led the Illini in both sacks (7 ½) and tackles for loss (12 ½) last season.
‘‘We will miss an outstanding man and outstanding football player, an outstanding leader, just everything about Bobby Roundtree,’’ head coach Lovie Smith said at media day. ‘‘We’ll miss him. But the way our team can honor him is with its play. He’ll always be involved and be close this year.’’