As the college football season approaches, Ohio State fans are eager to learn about their Big Ten competitors. In this article, we’ll delve into the Illinois Fighting Illini football team with insights from Ryan Evan of the Keeping It Orange and Blue podcast.

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Illinois Football: A Basketball School with Football Ambitions

Illinois is traditionally known as a basketball school, but the football program has had its share of memorable moments. Ohio State fans might recall the Illini’s success in the early to mid-90s, especially against the Buckeyes. With Bret Bielema at the helm, Illinois is looking to build on its recent progress and become a consistent bowl contender.

Bret Bielema’s Impact and Goals

Bret Bielema has made the Illini competitive since his arrival, boasting an 18-19 record. Despite some close losses, including blown fourth-quarter leads, the team reached the ReliaQuest Bowl in 2022 with an 8-5 record. The main storyline for 2024 is whether Illinois can secure the one additional win needed to return to a bowl game, leveraging their solid recruiting momentum and key offseason pickups.

Defensive Challenges and Key Changes

Illinois had one of the Big Ten’s best defenses two years ago, but the departure of key players like Devin Witherspoon, Sidney Brown, and Quan Martin, along with defensive coordinator Ryan Walters to Purdue, created challenges. Bielema promoted Aaron Henry to defensive coordinator, and the defense’s performance in 2024 will be crucial. Key additions such as Terrance Brooks from Texas and veterans like Matthew Bailey are expected to bolster the defense.

Offense: Key Players to Watch

The Illinois offense is led by quarterback Luke Altmyer, a transfer from Ole Miss, who showed resilience and improvement last season. Running back Caden Fagan, a 6’2″, 230-pound powerhouse, is poised to be a breakout star. The receiving corps, despite losing standout Isaiah Williams to the NFL, remains strong with additions like Zakhari Franklin from Ole Miss and rising talents like Pat Bryant and Malik Elzy.

Offensive Line and Overall Strength

The offensive line, rated a 7 out of 10, is expected to be much improved with the addition of JC Davis from New Mexico. This improvement, coupled with Kaden Feagin’s physical running style and Luke Altmyer’s dual-threat capability, positions the offense as a significant strength for Illinois.

Concerns and Expectations

The primary concern for Illinois is the defensive line and the overall defensive performance under Coach Henry in his second year as coordinator. The team’s success will hinge on how well the defense can support the offense in critical games.

The Schedule Ahead

Illinois’ 2024 schedule features an intriguing mix of non-conference and Big Ten matchups. Key games include a home opener against Eastern Illinois, a notable clash with Kansas, and Central Michigan. Watch how Illinois performs in these early games to gauge their readiness for the more challenging conference slate.

Final Thoughts

With Bielema’s defensive pedigree and a potentially explosive offense, the Illini could surprise in the Big Ten. Whether they can secure enough wins to return to a bowl game will be a key storyline this season. Stay tuned to the developments in Champaign, as Illinois aims to make a significant impact in the Big Ten.