The world was one Illinois football season preview short. But not anymore. Other rightings: Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue, Indiana, Nebraska, Northwestern, Rutgers, Maryland, Penn State.
It’s open mic night at a dingy Champaign bar sometime this summer. The MC steps to the microphone.
“All right, everybody, we’ve got one more act tonight. Please put your hands together for a first timer named…”
The MC squints at his notecard.
A few claps. The men’s room door swings open. Out strolls a man in a bright orange sportcoat. Upon closer inspection, it appears he’s wearing a Lovie Smith mask.
With toilet paper stuck to his blue suede shoes, he grabs the microphone and gives it a few taps.
“Jesus, this mic is so wide open, Wes Lunt could have overthrown it.”
An uncomfortable silence.
“Hey, we got any Illinois football fans in the house tonight? I didn’t think so. I don’t see anyone in their nineties.”
“I’m serious. Illinois football’s been dead for so long, they built a memorial stadium for it.”
“You know what Illinois is? They’re the team you can’t remember when you’re trying to name every school in the Big Ten conference. Am I right?”
“That used to be Purdue. And how ‘bout that Illinois-Purdue rivalry, huh? That one really moves the dial. Winner gets 6th place in the West!”
“Remember when Illinois lost to Purdue last year? Yep, right before Darrell Hazell got fired. You remember Darrell Hazell. He’s the guy with three Big Ten wins in four seasons. Or as the Illini would say, ‘about average.’”
“Illinois lost to him twice. Which means Illinois and Darrell Hazell’s dick are the only things Darrell Hazell has beaten more than once.”
“Maybe they should hire him.”
The crowd shows no reaction.
“Jeez, you people can’t be Illini fans. You got no sense of humor.”
“Folks, Illinois football is so bad, the players look like they’re in it for the education.”
“I’m not kidding. They got it so backwards at Illinois, they’re recruiting the children of faculty members they want to hire.”
An audience member coughs.
“Ah, but I feel for Illinois. They got a tough schedule this year, real tough. They play other teams.”
“I’m not kidding. Illinois is the only team in the Big Ten that can hold an intra-sqaud scrimmage and lose.”
“Hey, you know what Lovie Smith calls practice? A good golf round spoiled.”
“Seriously folks. Does it seem to you like coaching Illinois is what Lovie Smith is doing with his retirement?”
“Alls I know is, most college football coaches are at it 24/7. Lovie? He’d like to lose 24-7. Or as he’d say, ‘Pretty close.’”
“Most coaches buy a nice home where they live. Lovie? He’s subletting.”
“Oh, save that for the Illini home opener.”
“Folks, I got news for ya. On the road to the Big Ten championship, Illinois is a parking ticket.”
“You know what, you’re right. They’re not even a parking ticket. They’re some fucked-up scene on the side of the road that you barely catch a glimpse of as you’re going 90.”
“You folks follow recruiting? I saw today Illinois got a 4-star……Yelp review, from a 1-star recruit after his official visit. Sounds promising.”
“Is Tim Beckman in the audience tonight? No, that’s right, they fired him for abusing players. As opposed to Lovie, who only abuses fans.”
“Is Bill Cubit here? Who am I kidding, they fired his ass. He was winning too much — making everybody look bad.”
“Bill Cubit. I hear he’s coaching a high school team. In other words, he got promoted.”
“You folks remember Ron Zook? That guy was like John L. Smith without personality.”
“Who we got on offense this year? Jeff George, Jr. Sounds like a NASCAR driver. Perfect for this tire fire of an offense.”
“Who was Jeff George Senior? Wasn’t he that wrestler from that ‘90s who hit people in the head with acoustic guitars? That’s what the Illini defense needs…some foreign objects.”
“Then you got Chayce Crouch. Another perfect name. While the rest of the Big Ten chases glory, Illinois is in a crouch.”
“You gotta give credit, though, the Illini got a damn good running back in Kendrick Foster. How long before he transfers?”
“Wow, you people look like you just watched an Illini hype video for 2017.”
“Folks, I’m just the warm-up act. The real jokes start this fall on BTN Extra. G’night everybody!”
Did You Know?
Mikey Dudek’s got so many red shirts, he could dress Wisconsin.
Best Case Scenario
“Best case scenario, you kiddin’ me? How about back in time and change the schedule? Geez Louise. South Florida? Cuz they love Lovie in Tampa. Illini fans should look at this schedule and say, “Thank God there’s Rutgers.” But you know what, Rutgers fans are looking at their schedule and thinking, “Thank God there’s Illinois!”
Worst Case Scenario
“The Illini quit playing football. Excuse me, I meant to say that’s the best case scenario. Really though, Illinois is playing on back-to-back Friday night games in late September. They’re going to get fewer fans than the Urbana-Centennial high school game. It’ll be good though, might as well get the Illinois game out of the way on Friday and let Illini fans watch college football on Saturday. Worst case? 0-14 with a loss in the Big Ten title game and the Big Caesar’s Bowl.”
Most Likely Scenario
“Lovie Smith wins two games, gets a contract extension, and invests the bonus in a pharmaceuticals mutual that performs better than Illinois in 2018.”
Tough act to follow…unlike last year’s Illini fantasy prospects. This year will be different, but not by much.
Wes Lunt finished his Illinois career 6th all-time in passing; that is both setup and punchline to a dark joke about the Illini offense. His unsuccessor, Chayce Crouch, adds more of a dual threat. His ability to run fairly well and pass with marginal success reminds us of former Maryland turnover machine and current Amazon Logistics Manager CJ Brown. Ordinarily that’d get fans looking to the backup, but Jeff George, Jr. struggled completing passes to his own team. The real fantasy tragedy was the news that JuCo transfer Dwayne Lawson, a dirt-poor-man’s Cam Newton, would be ineligible to play this season.
Kendrick Foster stunned Big Ten fantasizers last year when he overtook much-ballyhooed starter Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Foster’s combination of tough running, slick moves, and breakaway speed made him a home-run threat and fantasy waiver wire MVP. He’s as enticing a third-round prospect as there is, held back only by the overall limitations of a bad team. In an offense without much passing threat (or maybe a surprisingly decent one?), he will be a workhorse. But he’d better watch his back. Starting Illini running backs have a cursed history of failure. Given that, the historically well-versed fantasy enthusiast may be more inclined to take a flyer on the new guy, freshman Mike Epstein. Word is last year’s backup, Reggie Corbin, has yet to practice.
The big story of the season will be the return of Mikey Dudek, who won our good friend AT a fantasy title with his ridiculous all-world, 1,000+ receiving yards freshman season in 2014. His first game action will be a triumphant, hard-fought dream come true, a fantasy fulfilled for fans and fantasy enthusiasts. After consecutive spring-ball ACL tears, Dudek should be drafted with caution, but the romantic in all of us is rooting for him. Dudek’s return overshadows the fact that Illinois has perhaps the most complete receiver in the conference: junior Malik Turner. If Crouch serves up decent balls, Turner could be a delicious mid-round pick in your draft. Backing up the big names are Sam Mays and Ricky Smalling. Probably a two-man show catching balls in Champaign, and the most fascinating question in the draft is “when does Dudek get picked?”
Picking a tight end in the last round is like picking an 8-9 game in the NCAA Tournament. You pick the right one and it’s luck, you pick the wrong one and it seemed obvious the whole time. Tight ends on good offenses don’t score much. This is not a good offense. Think twice before selecting Griffin Palmer.
Chase McLaughlin is back, and he is probably the best kicker on a bad team in the conference.
We’ll keep repeating it: a bottom-four defense will wreck your fantasy season. This is a bottom-four defense. The Illini boasted one of the nation’s most preseason-celebrated defensive lines last year, and they couldn’t stop a light breeze. Those top players are gone and Lovie and DC Hardy Nickerson have the work of their careers cut out for them. They return only three starters, including really good linebacker Tré Watson. So maybe change and lower expectations will be good omens for this group. Or maybe the old wisdom that replacing a lot of starters from a bad team may actually be helpful is horseshit. Stay away, stay far farrrr away.
Illinois’s uncompetitive 2016 loss to NW to close the season
Illinois’s 2016 win over Sparty
Lovie Smith clearing up that Illinois doesn’t recruit 10 year olds