Fact or Fiction: Illini will make a bowl game

Will Illinois make a bowl game in its first season under Lovie Smith? The Illini Inquirer staff weighs in.

Ryan Easterling, Illini Inquirer recruiting reporter

Fiction. I do think this team has the potential to get to a bowl game, but a lot of things have to go right, and I just don't see the stars aligning this year for this team. 

Do I think this team will make some big strides in year one?  Absolutely.  This is likely the most stability the team has had in several years, despite Lovie Smith only being at the helm for 5 months and change.  But his steady hand and even-keel personality have provided a stable and unified environment in the locker room.

But without a healthy amount of depth, this team isn't built to withstand many injuries or weather much fatigue.  The schedule also gets increasingly more difficult after the midway point, and the bye week comes earlier this year.

http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1700877-know-your-enemy-murr... The Illini's best hope for a bowl might mean starting off the season 5-1.  That means wins over Murray State, Western Michigan, Nebraska, Rutgers, and Purdue, or possibly even UNC, who will likely be favored in the matchup.

The second half of the season is a gauntlet of Michigan, Minnesota, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Northwestern.  Of that group, Minnesota and Northwestern are likely the best opportunities for the Illini to get a late win, but Illinois likely won't be heavily favored in any of those.

With some of the seniors on this team like Wes Lunt, Dawuane Smoot, Justin Hardee, and several others, a bowl is clearly the goal.  A bowl season provides notoriety among fans and recruits as well as additional practice for a team that will need it.  But in the big picture, more sound and mistake-free play will still be valuable in the grand scheme.

A bowl game would be a great metric for this Illini team, but shouldn't be the lone gauge for this team's success in 2016.

Jeremy Werner, Illini Inquirer publisher

Fiction. Well, I guess we can't be considered homers, huh? We just provided some locker-room material.

Not to get Tim Beckman on you, but Illinois is one of those teams -- like last season -- that could be a few plays away from 3-9 or a few plays away from 7-5. I'm going to say they finish in the middle of that.

I think Illinois will look better this season. But that doesn't necessarily mean I think they'll finish with a better record.

A bowl is a great goal, and an attainable one for the Illini. I repeat, it would not shock me if they make a bowl game. They have some real next-level talent with Wes Lunt at quarterback, a future pro running back in Ke'Shawn Vaughn and a talented front seven on defense that includes multiple NFL prospects, including a likely first-round pick in defensive end Dawuane Smoot.

I think Illinois will look better. They'll miss less assignments, commit fewer stupid penalties (though even well-coached teams make these mistakes) and commit to the run more. The defense could take another small step forward from last year's big leap.

I just think a lot has to go right for Illinois to make a bowl because of 1) a tougher schedule; and 2) lack of depth.

http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1700233-applying-war-to-illi... For one, take out a game against a Kent State / Western Illinois / Middle Tennessee State and add a Big Ten East team (this season the division crossovers are at Rutgers, at Michigan and home versus Michigan State). For the record, I'm a fan of the tougher schedule. It is a much more interesting/fan-friendly schedule with more real opponents and rivals. It just makes getting to a bowl more difficult for teams like Illinois. 

I agree with Easterling that Illinois must get off to a good start. A loss to a talented Western Michigan team at home or a road loss at Rutgers would be devastating given the back end of the schedule. Conversely, a win against top-25 North Carolina at home and/or on the road at Nebraska would put Illinois in great position -- and likely give them great momentum on the recruiting trail as well.

But if I'm going to go by what I've seen in camp and what I think of the Big Ten, I just have to fall on the side that Illinois just doesn't have the horses to pull it off. If you could tell me everyone stays perfectly healthy through the season, I may flop to the "fact" side of this argument. But odds are that Illinois will suffer a key injury somewhere. With their depth, they simply can't afford it -- especially on offense following more spring injuries to key weapons Mikey Dudek and Dre Brown.

A serious injury to Lunt crushes the season. A serious injury to Vaughn could cost them a win or two. A serious injury to one of the top remaining receivers exposes more of the inconsistencies further down the depth chart. A serious injury to one of the starting offensive linemen exposes a second unit that just doesn't have Big Ten-ready players.

If everyone stays healthy, I look at the schedule and still think Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska are likely losses on the road -- though Wisconsin and Nebraska certainly have flaws that can be exposed -- and the Illini will have very low odds to beat UNC, Iowa and Michigan State at home. Illinois will have toss-ups against Minnesota (home) and Northwestern (road).

I think Illinois will look like a better football team in 2016. They'll probably win a game we don't expect them too (but lose one of the key toss-ups?). I think they could make a bowl with a little fortune in the health department.

But if I had to put money on it, I'd side with the Vegas sharks and say Illinois falls short of its bowl goal -- though, personally, I really wouldn't mind going to some warm weather in December to cover a football game, Illini.

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