The Illinois Fighting Illini are bowl eligible. If you, like me, had that on your 2022 college football bingo card please stand up. Now if you have them reaching bowl eligibility in their seventh game of the season, stay standing, and everyone else sit down.
Is there anyone left standing? No? I didn’t imagine there would be. What Illinois has done so far this season has been shocking, they’re 6-1 on the season and realistically should be 7-0 if not for a terrible missed call against Indiana that took seven points off the board.
After a 26-14 win against the Minnesota Golden Gophers, it is time to accept the truth. Illinois is a good football team, full stop.
The Fighting Illini started the season 3-1 with wins over Wyoming, Virginia, and Chattanooga with an inexplicable loss to Indiana. Yes, I’ve already said they were robbed, but a good team doesn’t allow a game against an inferior opponent to be decided by the referees. The 3-1 start was encouraging, but they were looking at a daunting three-week stretch against Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, the top three teams in the West division.
Many people, myself included, expected them to lose all three games. Illinois was clearly better with Bret Bielema at the helm, but expecting them to compete against the class of the division in Year 2 was a lofty goal.
No one would have blinked an eye if they had lost all three games and we would’ve been proud if they found a way to win one of the three. After showing improvement in their first season, year two was supposed to be about showing progress and making a bowl game. I can’t speak for the people in Champaign but competing for the West division title was not the goal for this season. Well, after winning all three games competing for the West Division is exactly what they’re doing and they control their own destiny. As long as they don’t implode the West division is all but secured with games against Purdue and Nebraska still on the schedule.
Illinois was one of the worst programs in college football in the last few decades, but credit to them for not accepting their fate as they tried a multitude of ways to get off the cellar floor. Their most recent attempt went horribly as they took a shot on an ex-NFL coach bringing a CEO mindset and NFL approach to their program by hiring Chicago legend Lovie Smith.
Smith was an outright failure going 17-39 overall with a 10-33 record in the Big Ten. After firing Smith, Illinois made a risky hire — in some peoples’ minds — in bringing Bret Bielema back to the Big Ten.
Bielema helped create the Wisconsin scheme, arguably perfecting Barry Alvarez’s run-first, defensive-minded take on program building. At Wisconsin, Bielema went 68-24 leading the Badgers to three West division titles and six straight bowl games. He then left Wisconsin for Arkansas, and after having some minor success — including three bowl appearances — he was fired as the Razorbacks began regressing toward the end of his tenure.
Many people questioned the hiring of Bielema, especially at a Wisconsin division rival after spending so much of his career in Madison, but the hire has paid off faster than expected. Bielema has Illinois humming by beating his opponents at their own game.
He immediately brought the run-focused offense and a tough defensive mindset to Illinois, but, unlike recently fired Paul Chryst and Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, he has modernized the offense.
Bielema brought in Barry Lunney Jr. to take his offense into the 21st Century, and Lundy has brought everything they needed and more. The Illini are led by Chase Brown, one of the best backs in college football, but under Lunney’s tutelage, opposing defenses haven’t been able to focus solely on Brown.
Lunney uses a lot of pre and post-snap motion to confuse defenders, coupled with a quick passing game to dynamic wide receiver Isaiah Williams making Illinois hard to stop. With Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito at quarterback, this team has added a vertical passing element to the offense, making it hard for the opposing defense to stack the box.
The Illinois offense is coupled with a defense led by rising superstar Ryan Walters. The defensive coordinator’s defense ranks fourth in the country in stop rate. Stop rate, a statistic developed by Max Olson of The Athletic, measures the percentage of drives that end without the opposing offense scoring. Illinois has an 81.2% stop rate and allows 0.74 points per drive. The only teams ranked higher than them are Minnesota, Michigan, and San Jose State in that order. Illinois' defense is no joke, they’ve outscored their last three opponents 69-30 holding them all under 14 points.
Bielema in just his second year has transformed Illinois into a good football team. They are without a doubt the best team in the West, and they have multiple future NFL players on their roster and two future head coaches as their offensive and defensive coordinators. No one expected this from Illinois so soon, and if they say they did, they’re lying.
With five games left in the season, Illinois should be favored in all except for the Michigan game, meaning that they’re on track for a 10-win season. While programs like Wisconsin, Iowa, and Northwestern are taking major steps back, Illinois is charging forward setting itself up to be competitive in the new Big Ten for years to come.
You may not have seen it coming, but Illinois is here now, and they’re not going anywhere. So don’t be surprised when you see Illinois in Indianapolis this year or next. The Illini story is just starting, but under Bielema, the sky’s the limit.