Before each Illinois football game, Illini Inquirer will ask five questions of an opposing beat writer. This week, we talked with InsideCarolina.com's Greg Barnes to preview the Illini's Week 3 road trip to North Carolina.
1. Larry Fedora is in his fourth season at UNC. Word is that Illinois was very interested in him before they eventually hired recently dismissed head coach Tim Beckman. Fedora has won one fewer game in each of his three seasons (8 in 2012, 7 in 2013, 6 in 2014). He inherited a program on probation, but how would evaluate his progress with the program so far?
Larry Fedora has proven that he's an excellent offensive mind. He's set yardage and scoring records at basically every stop, dating back to his OC days at Middle Tennessee State in the late 1990s. It's also clear that he's still learning as a head coach. He deserves a pass to an extent for the scholarship restrictions and the ongoing NCAA cloud, but there's a growing number of head-scratching moments that have marked his time at UNC. He made a significant move in the offseason by bringing in Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator and there is hope in the Tar Heel community that such a hire will steady the program and allow Fedora to reverse the trend in the W/L column.
2. This offense has some scary personnel -- dual-threat QB Marquise Williams, big and fast wide receivers and a powerful offensive line -- and has put up some big numbers under Fedora. What makes this offense churn so well? If it has an Achilles' heel, what is it?
Fedora has long been on the cutting edge of offensive ingenuity, which is one of the reasons his offenses have been so successful. It's a simple design that relies on balance and a short passing game that produces explosive gains. Fedora takes what the defense gives him. If a defense stacks the box, he's going to throw. Try to defend the pass, and he's going to run. That's the type of balance he wants, not an equal number of runs and passes. This offense floundered in 2014, however, due to inconsistent play all over the field, especially along the offensive line. Don't let the total offense numbers fool you - UNC ran the most plays in the ACC last season, so those stats tend to favor the up-tempo offenses like Fedora runs. The 2015 offense has more experience across the board with 10 returning starters, but managed just 13 points against South Carolina in the opener due to a trio of turnovers inside the 25-yard-line.
3. Vic Koenning -- a fan favorite in Champaign for his great work with the Illini defense in 2011 -- was fired as the UNC defensive coordinator (or head coach of the defense, or whatever he was called) after a few dismal seasons. Former BCS champion head coach Gene Chizik has taken over the defense. What kind of impact or changes has he brought to the defense and has he covered up any of the past sins?
The key aspect of Chizik's impact in Chapel Hill has been his simplification of scheme. UNC's defensive talent has slowly eroded away since Butch Davis was fired, and it was a hurdle that Vic Koenning could never overcome, even with a sophisticated scheme. Chizik taught his scheme to the defense as if they had never played the game before, and the results have been obvious through two games. While UNC still lacks talent (especially up front), the players have consistently been in the right spot and they've done a solid job in limiting explosive plays. The 2014 defense was as bad as it was due to missed assignments and busted coverages that led to easy scores. That area has greatly improved through two games.
4. Illinois fired its coach seven days before the season opener. UNC did something similar in 2011, dismissing Butch Davis a month before the season due to NCAA violations. What impact did that have that team? Do you see any similarities with Illinois?
Looking from the outside in, it seems to me that the only similarity is the fact that both teams lost their head coaches prior to the start of the season. The Tar Heel fan base and players were crushed when Davis was fired in July 2011. Everyone believed that he had weathered the NCAA storm and was poised to continue UNC's upward climb before the rug was pulled out. The players rallied together and played for Davis in 2011. I may be wrong, but I haven't sensed that same level of disappointment for the players with regard to Beckman's firing. Having said that, adversity of any kind serves as a rallying point for players in a game as emotional as college football.
5. This game is being billed as a measuring-stick game for Illinois. UNC already had one in a loss to South Carolina, so how is this game getting built up in Chapel Hill? And what's your prediction?
Fedora has gone out of his way this week to prop up Illinois to his fan base. He opened his press conference on Monday by saying that Illinois was the best team that UNC has seen on film this year. The fan base expects a win, which makes this a no-win game of sorts for Fedora. Win and you were supposed to, lose and the criticism will rain down. Personally, I think there are a lot of unknowns for both teams at this point of the season, so I agree that this is a measuring-stick game for both programs. I do think UNC is better than it showed against South Carolina - Marquise Williams had a 20-0 TD/INT ratio in the red zone before that loss - and when you factor in the home field advantage, I've got UNC in a close game. 31-28.