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Early Wisconsin football 2017 preview: Week 9 at Illinois

The Champaign Room looks at the Illini.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Like many of the Big Ten West division programs, there’s been a change in regime for the Illinois Fighting Illini over the past few seasons.

Last year, former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith took over a team from the fired Tim Beckman and not-retained Bill Cubit. Illinois went 3-9 in its first season under Smith, 2-7 in Big Ten conference play.

There are some pieces to the puzzle still missing in Champaign, but the former NFL coach appears to be taking Illinois football in the right direction.

The Champaign Room’s Austin Jabs joined B5Q to talk about Illinois’s upcoming season and expectations.

What’s the general feeling for this Illinois team heading into the 2017 season as year two of the Lovie Smith era begins, and what changes could help/hinder their pursuit of a Big Ten West division title?

I think the feelings for this season are fairly mixed. There is general optimism coming into the 2017 season with a solid recruiting class and, for the most part, a continuous coaching staff, something this team has not seen in a while. The loss of Tim McGarigle, linebackers coach, to the Green Bay Packers may hurt, but the Illini seem to have added a great coach in Donnie Abraham and have bolstered their claim to being the coaching staff with the most NFL experience. Abraham appears to be a bright football mind and someone who understands the game, as his NFL experience shows. His addition not only helps to build the staff, but opens a pipeline to IMG Academy, one of the most talent-rich high schools in the nation. I still think the Illini may be able to make a bowl game in 2017, but it would be a low 6/7-win bowl game.

Who are the key contributors coming back for the Illini?

Illinois lost a lot of talent to graduation (and a few transfers) but the offensive line stays pretty much intact, minus Joe Spencer and Austin Schmidt. During the 2016 season, you could see the line improve throughout the season, building on a season with limited injuries and continuous playing time. Gabe Megginson should have a very solid 2017 coming off an injury and will likely live up to what many expected coming out of high school. The defensive backs have some talent returning as well, led by Cameron Watkins, Jaylen Dunlap, and athletic sophomore Stanley Green.

Who will they have to replace from last year’s team?

The Illini lost several highly vital pieces after last season, including starting quarterback Wes Lunt, fifth-year senior transfer Hardy Nickerson, Jr., and top receivers Justin Hardee and Desmond Cain to name a few. In all, Illinois lost 23 to graduation and top running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn transferred after the season. Replacing that large of a subset of your team, especially when the majority of those are starters, puts a program on hold for a season. Due to this exodus, the Illini will likely need to consider this a rebuilding year as opposed to last season. With Lovie Smith continuing to tool this team together, 2017 will likely be more rebuilding for the future, which still looks bright.

Which players could be breakout candidates?

I spoke about Stanley Green earlier, and I honestly believe that he will be an All-Big Ten selection in 2017. Green tallied three forced fumbles as a freshman in 2016. At 5’11, he is right around the average height for the position, but where he excels is his speed, especially in closing on the tackle. With several games last season where he logged 10 or more tackles, Green showed that he has the ability to play hard football all season long. If Green is able to play the whole season, I expect huge numbers for him in 2017. Don’t sleep on Mike Dudek, though. The oft-injured receiver, coming off his second straight knee injury, is dying to get back on the field and show fans the magic he showed in his freshman year is still there.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Wisconsin
Stanley Green tackles Jazz Peavy during Wisconsin’s 48-3 win over Illinois on Nov. 12, 2016.
Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

What position battle(s) are worth watching this spring?

The only position where there will likely be some uncertainty coming into the season is at the quarterback position. Between the injured Chayce Crouch, the healthy but still improving Jeff George, Jr., and incoming former Virginia Tech quarterback Dwayne Lawson, the Illini will need to hope for someone to be able to secure that starting spot. Dwayne Lawson would likely be the assumed starter if he were enrolled, however it sounds like he will not be enrolling until summer, giving him a late start to training and practice. Crouch will be getting a later start to practicing as he recovers from shoulder surgery, leaving the door wide open to start the season for George.

2017 Wisconsin Football Schedule

Date Opponent Time (CT) Spring Q&A Preview
Date Opponent Time (CT) Spring Q&A Preview
Sept. 1 Utah State 8 p.m. Mountain West Connection
Sept. 9 Florida Atlantic 11 a.m. Underdog Dynasty
Sept. 16 at BYU 2:30 p.m. Vanquish the Foe
Sept. 30 Northwestern TBA Inside NU
Oct. 7 at Nebraska TBA Corn Nation
Oct. 14 Purdue TBA Hammer and Rails
Oct. 21 Maryland (Homecoming) 11 a.m. Testudo Times
Oct. 28 at Illinois 11 a.m. The Champaign Room
Nov. 4 at Indiana TBA Crimson Quarry
Nov. 11 Iowa TBA BHGP
Nov. 18 Michigan TBA Maize N Brew
Nov. 25 at Minnesota TBA The Daily Gopher