With the 2020 season kicking off in just a few weeks, we are previewing each opponent for Rutgers this fall. SB Nation sites for every Big Ten school have provided a detailed overview of what to expect from their respective team heading into this season. We continue our opponent preview series with week 4 foe Illinois.
The Fighting Illini visit Piscataway on November 14 and the two schools meet for the fifth straight season. Illinois has won three of the four previous matchups as conference members and despite making a bowl game last season, they will be present one of the best opportunities that Rutgers has to win this fall. However, that doesn’t mean it will be an easy task at all, especially having a veteran team and Michigan transfer Brandon Peters back to lead a high powered offense.
Tristen Kissack is the managing editor of The Champaign Room and here is his in-depth look at the current state of Illinois football entering the 2020 season.
List your team’s key departures:
(Reggie Corbin, RB, leading rusher), (Dre Brown, RB, second leading rusher), (Dele Harding, LB, leading tackler), (Oluwole Betiku Jr., DE)
List your team’s key returnees:
(Brandon Peters, QB, starter; darkhorse Heisman candidate), (Josh Imatorbhebhe, WR, leading receiver/TD scorer; have you seen his vertical?!), almost the entire veteran OL, (Jake Hansen, MLB, team leader in FF), (Nate Hobbs, CB, leader of the secondary), (Blake Hayes, P, best damn punter in the country)
List a few true freshmen or transfers that will make an instant impact:
(Luke Ford, TE, former top-50 player in the country/hometown kid), (Tre’von Riggins, DL, one of the top rated incoming freshmen), (Brian Hightower, WR, possible no. 3 wide out), (Anthony Shipton, DL, opportunity for playing time on the line)
Brief overview of 2020 team:
This will likely be the last time the Illini are ~relevant~ for the foreseeable future. With an upperclassmen-heavy roster and not much depth on the recruiting front the past couple years, the bowl contention window is quickly fading. Illinois is anchored by seniors Brandon Peters, Josh Imatorbhebhe, Jake Hansen, Nate Hobbs, the list goes on. Optimistically, this team will steal one or two it isn’t supposed to — we’re looking at you Wisconsin and Michigan State — and win the one or two it should. The offense will keep the Illini in games this year if running back Mike Epstein can stay healthy or Chase Brown lives up to the hype. On the defensive side of things, I think we’ll see a similar product to what we saw last year. This is really just a Blake Hayes stan account.
What’s your team’s biggest strength?
Can we say special teams? We’re going to go with special teams. If you didn’t know, Blake Hayes is arguably the best punter in the country. Chase McLau— errrr, James McCourt was the hero last October with his game-winning field goal as time expired against No. 6 Wisconsin. He’s also tied for the longest field goal in program history. They’re both led by senior long snapper Ethan Tabel.
What’s your team’s biggest weakness?
Losing guys like Oluwole Betiku Jr., Ayo Shogbonyo and Jamal Milan off last year’s defensive line really hurts. There are a couple newcomers that could make some noise. We’ll see what Owen Carney Jr., Jamal Woods, Calvin Avery, and Isaiah Gay can do with more snaps.
How does your fanbase feel about your coach and his staff?
At one point last year, a significant portion of Illini Twitter was calling for Lovie’s head. We certainly never did such a thing. The bearded wonder bought himself a couple more years in Champaign after reaching the first bowl in half a decade. The defense looked better than it had earlier in his tenure, and Rod Smith is a good fit at OC. Right now, the jury is still out.
Who is your team’s MVP this season and why?
Josh Imatorbhebhe. The USC transfer burst onto the scene last year with nine touchdown catches and over twice as many yards receiving as the next closest receiver. He stepped up to the plate on numerous occasions when the Illini needed to make a play. The offense will rely on him heavily again.
Predict your team’s record, its best win, and a potential surprise loss:
2-6, Purdue, Minnesota?
Thanks to Tristen for taking the time to give such great insight on Illinois ahead of the 2020 season. You can follow him on Twitter here and make sure to visit The Champaign Room for complete coverage of the Illini.
2020 Opponent Season Preview Series