Fact. In August, that's something I never thought I'd say. There are a few reasons I'm saying it now.
First of all, Illinois may only win two or three games in 2016 - I thought it was a four- to six-win team (I projected five during the preseason) -- and that's not a very high bar to hurdle.
Secondly, the schedule seems slightly more manageable. I say slightly because the schedule still is a tough one.
Ball State (4-3 so far this season under first-year coach Mike Neu) is way better than Murray State, though still a middling MAC team. 2017 Western Kentucky likely won't be as good as 2016 Western Michigan (No. 20 in the AP Poll this week), but WKU (currently No. 67 in Sagarin ratings, 12 spots ahead of Illinois) is still a challenging mid-major opponent. Former Illini assistant Jeff Brohm has the Hilltoppers rolling in his third season as head coach (14-5 Conference USA record). He'll have a team full of his recruits who are comfortable in his system next year.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1718009-mid-term-grades-illi... 2017 South Florida won't be as good as 2016 North Carolina (No. 22 in the AP Poll this week), but fourth-year coach Willie Taggart has the Bulls (6-1, currently No. 35 in Sagarin ratings) picking up steam and the Illini travel to Tampa for the non-conference finale. The Illini are rooting for bigger programs to hire away both Brohm and Taggart so each program has some transitional pains next year.
The conference schedule also provides some pretty winnable games: Rutgers (home), Minnesota (away), Purdue (away), Indiana (home). Also, Iowa (away) and Northwestern (neutral) seem tough but not impossible. Home games against Nebraska and Wisconsin are very daunting, and a trip to Ohio State ... well, good luck.
Next, let's evaluate the roster.
|QB||Crouch/Lunt||Crouch/Transfer?||Biggest X-factor. But at worst, Crouch will improve and provide a similar impact to this season. An impact transfer could really elevate this offense into a dangerous one.|
|RB||K. Foster||K. Foster||With Vaughn, Dre Brown, Nation, Ra'Von Bonner, Mike Epstein, this is UI's deepest group.
|RB||R. Corbin||R. Corbin|
|WR||M. Turner||M. Turner||Legit No. 1 target should finally get some help around him.|
|WR||Z. Grant||M. Dudek||If healthy, this is a massive upgrade as playmaker in the slot|
|WR||J. Hardee||R. Smalling||Another big upgrade, Smalling would start for Illini now - as HS senior|
|TE||T. White/A. Johnson||C. Reams/G. Palmer||Still a big position of weakness, though Reams is a good receiver and Griffin Palmer is an intriguing prospect|
|QT||A. Schmidt||Megginson||Megginson is less proven but has higher ceiling|
|QG||Megginson||Allegretti/Boyd||Illini sold Boyd as a four-year starter. If he's ready, he'll provide a physical presence|
|C||J. Specner||Allegretti/Kramer||Allegretti could be All-Big Ten worthy here. Doug Kramer is undersized but smart and strong|
|SG||Allegretti||D. Lee||A downgrade, but Lee is very powerful and should improve following freshman experience|
|ST||DiLauro||DiLauro||Great experience and only senior returning on OL|
|DE||Smoot||Odenigbo||Biggest downgrade on the team. Illini likely will have to move Tito Odenigbo or Tymir Oliver to DE.|
|DT||Clements||J. Milan||Milan already playing better than Clements|
|DT||R. Bain||K. Jackson||Jackson already starting over Bain|
|DE||Phillips||McGrew/Crawford||Another massive downgrade at DE|
|SLB||J. Jones||J. Jones||Top athlete will get more experience in 2H|
|MLB||Nickerson||D. Harding||Harding has a lot of similarities to former Illini Jonathan Brown but this is a downgrade because Nickerson is so solid|
|WLB||T. Watson||T. Watson||Watson's had growing pains this season but should be a solid, improved starter|
|CB||J. Dunlap||J. Dunlap||Junior somewhat inconsistent but solid|
|CB||Hayes||2017 recruit||Likely an upgrade no matter if it's Antwan Collier or a JUCO transfer|
|NB||Mosely||E. Jones||Jones an athletic upgrade but has no experience|
|FS||S. Green||S. Green||Rangy freshman gaining valuable experience|
|SS||P. Nelson||P. Nelson||Great run-stuffer must improve vs. pass|
|K||McLaughlin||McLaughlin||Needs to finish year strong but looks like a solid kicker|
|P||Frain||2017 recruit||Illini have been looking for a big-leg scholarship punter|
So, to recap...
The team upgrades greatly at receiver. It downgrades greatly at defensive end. The offensive line loses experience but gains size and physicality that could make it a better unit. Running back gets deeper, but defensive tackle gets thinner (likely with a player or two moving to the outside to fill the gaps at DE). The back seven loses a few impact players but returns a lot of young players currently gaining valuable experience. Plus, Illinois still has time to add more instant-impact recruits.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1717849-mid-term-grades-illi... The Illini defense will be a huge issue, but the offense should be much more explosive -- depending on who's quarterbacking the team. A a whole, the roster doesn't improve all that much. But it probably doesn't seem to take the huge dip we previously imagined. To me, it looks like it all balances out to about even.
But this last factor may be the most important one: it will be Year Two of Smith's staff. The players will better understand their roles and the schemes. They will have more than a year with the new strength and conditioning staff led by Joey Boese. Lovie's staff will actually be coaching some of their own recruits. Even Tim Beckman's team improved from a two-win team in Year One to a four-win team in Year Two despite huge losses on the roster.
Smith's first season so far has been a disappointment. But that low bar in 2016 (along with the schedule and certain roster upgrades) suggest the best bet is that there's only room for improvement in 2017 -- or at least not a lot of room for regression.