Absolute best, worst case scenario for 2020 Illini football season

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Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters throws a pass during the game against Wisconsin. The Illini won 24-23.

By Alec Busse, Assistant Video Editor

Illinois has its best roster, on paper, that they have had in the last decade. The Illini return nine starters on offense and eight on defense.

The 2019 season was supposed to be the year Illinois started to reap the benefits of hiring Lovie Smith, who was tasked with rebuilding the program. Illinois did that, appearing in their first bowl game since 2014. The 2019 season was filled with memorable wins, including its upset of No. 6 Wisconsin on Homecoming in Champaign and its 25-point comeback win on the road against Michigan State in East Lansing.

The 2020 season could be one of the more memorable seasons Illinois has had in a long time if things go the way many fans are hoping and coaches are expecting. A favorable first half schedule gives Illinois an opportunity to lock down another bowl game, which would be their first back-to-back bowl game appearances since the 2010 and 2011 seasons. So what’s the absolute best- and worst-case scenario for Illinois in 2020?

The best possible season for Illinois

Illinois opens its 2020 campaign with three non-conference games at Memorial Stadium against Illinois State, UConn and Bowling Green. All three of those games are wins, and all should come pretty handily. Let’s say Illinois wins all of those games by at least two scores with quarterback Brandon Peters looking comfortable and throwing to a healthy Ricky Smalling, Josh Imatorbhebhe and Trevon Sidney. Running back Mike Epstein stays healthy while also showing he is the best all-around running back Illinois has on their roster. The defense, led by Jake Hansen, holds each opponent under 20-points.

Through the first three weeks, Illinois is 3-0 before heading into a bye-week.

Illinois returns to action on Oct. 3 in Piscataway, New Jersey, against Rutgers, the Big Ten’s worst team. Illinois’ experienced offensive line dominates the trenches and opens up big holes for the running game and Illinois runs all over the Scarlet Knights en route to a 42-17 road win to open Big Ten play; Illinois moves to 4-0.

The following week Illinois travels to Nebraska for their first real test of the 2020 season. In a sea of Cornhusker red, the Illini defense comes up big and forces three Adrian Martinez interceptions. Brandon Peters capitalizes on the extra possessions by throwing two second-half touchdowns to Imatorbhebhe, leading Illinois to a 33-28 victory in Lincoln. Smith and company deliver an impressive 5-0 start for Illini nation.

The Illini are welcomed home to a sold-out Memorial Stadium crowd on Homecoming, the first time since 2016, to take on Purdue.

The Illini offense continues to roll and posts another 30-point performance, with tight end Luke Ford catching two touchdown passes and Epstein running for two more. Redshirt-freshman Marquez Beason and Nate Hobbs fly around the field and each grabs an interception. The Illini clinch a bowl game with their sixth win and are 6-0 for the first time since 2011.

On Oct. 24, P.J. Fleck’s Minnesota Golden Gophers come to Champaign in hopes of ending Illinois’ perfect season. Quarterback Tanner Morgan connects with wide receiver Rashod Bateman for a pair of first-half touchdown, and Illinois goes into halftime down 21-10. Illini fans begin to think their winning streak is going to come to an end. Hansen has other ideas. On the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, Hansen picks off a pass in the middle of the field and takes it to the house for a pick-six. In the fourth quarter, Smalling comes up big for Illinois, breaking free for a 60-yard touchdown, giving Illinois a 24-21 lead. The Illini defense holds the Golden Gophers the rest of the way, and Illinois moves to 7-0 and is ranked in the top-20.

Halloween 2020 is a day Wisconsin has circled on their calendar since Illinois upset the Badgers in 2019. Paul Chryst’s team is rolling, just like Smith’s Illini. On Halloween night, Illinois is overwhelmed by Camp Randall and isn’t able to overcome a slow start as their comeback falls just short. The Illini suffer their first loss of 2020, a 33-30 heartbreaker, and moves to 7-1.

In week 10, Illinois has a matchup with Iowa at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 7 for Dads Weekend. Questions arise about how Illinois is going to respond after their first loss of the season. The answer? With a convincing win. Illinois comes out firing and takes a commanding 21-7 lead into the half. Hansen shuts the doors on the Hawkeyes when he forces his sixth fumble of the season midway through the third quarter. Illinois beats Iowa for the first time since 2008 and moves to 8-1 on the season.

In a potential trap game against a 5-4 Indiana team, Illinois has another quick start. The defensive line gets in the backfield frequently in the first half, which leads to a pair of Hoosier turnovers. A still healthy Epstein runs for two touchdowns and 100 yards, leading the Illinois offense to a 28-14 win.

Now, the game Illinois fans have been looking forward to all season. The battle for the Illibuck. Undefeated No. 1-ranked Ohio State travels to Champaign for a matchup against the 9-1 Illini. On College GameDay, Lee Corso shocks the world and picks Illinois as he puts on an oversized Illini helmet as Grange Grove erupts behind him.

Corso’s pick looks to be a solid one at halftime, as Illinois leads 14-13 behind two Brandon Peters touchdown passes. Is Illinois really going to upset a top-ranked Buckeyes team? Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields won’t allow it. Fields explodes in the second half for three touchdowns while the Illini offense isn’t able to respond. The Buckeyes come back and beat Illinois 34-14. Illinois falls to 9-2 but can clinch first place in the Big Ten West with a win over Northwestern in the final week of the regular season.

On Thanksgiving weekend, Illinois travels to Evanston, Illinois, with a Big Ten Championship appearance on their mind. Northwestern needs a win to get to bowl eligibility, but Hansen and his defense won’t have it. The senior linebacker has a career day with three sacks, a forced fumble and an interception, leading Illinois to a 27-10 victory over the Wildcats, the first victory over their in-state rival since 2014, taking back the Land of Lincoln Trophy.

The Illini move to the Big Ten Championship, where they are greeted by the still undefeated Buckeyes of Ohio State. At 10-2, the College Football Playoff is out of the question, but a New Year’s Six bowl can still happen for Illinois. Once again, Fields comes up big in the second half for Ohio State, leading the Buckeyes on a game-winning drive with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter. Ohio State celebrates in the confetti after beating Illinois 35-33. Illini fans are heart-broken as they saw their first Big Ten Championship game appearance since 2001 slip their grasp.

The impressive performance was enough to get Illinois to the Capital One Bowl against Notre Dame on Jan. 2. The Irish come into the game having lost just one game all season to Clemson. All the experts pick the Irish, but Smith is able to fire his team up and motivates the team to play their best game of the season. Illinois’ defense forces four turnovers, a season-high, and the offense explodes for six touchdowns. The Illini upset the Irish 42-14 and finishes the season with an 11-3 record, their best since 2001.

Worst Case Scenario for Illinois

Illinois starts the season with three wins against Illinois State, UConn and Bowling Green at Memorial Stadium, but the games are closer than expected.

Illinois then travels to Rutgers, where Greg Schiano is trying to get his first signature win in his second tenure with the Scarlet Knights. Illinois commits a couple of bad penalties in the second half and gives Rutgers opportunities to score on key possessions. Schiano gets his victory, and Illinois falls to 3-1.

Next up is Nebraska. Scott Frost’s team is undefeated and he plans to keep it that way. Illinois comes out flat, and Nebraska runs away with a 35-13 victory. Illinois falls to 3-2. Illini fans’ frustrations are starting to boil over.

As fans’ frustrations begin to show, Illinois is greeted by a crowd of just 20,000 on Homecoming against Purdue. Rondale Moore burns the Illini secondary for three touchdowns. The Illini don’t have enough offense and lose their third straight game. Illinois is now .500 on the season.

The next three games against Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa could make or break Smith’s tenure in Champaign. His team doesn’t come ready to play in any of the three games, and they get blown out by a combined score of 70-24 in the three games. To make it worse, players are seen laughing on the sideline and seem to be quitting on the coaching staff.

At 3-6, Illinois fans are ready for the basketball season, but a surprising 28-24 road win over Indiana gets Illinois back on track at 4-6.

Time for Ohio State. Ryan Day’s team doesn’t lack any preparation. Fields finds the end zone four times in the first half and two more times in the second half. Illinois’ offense can’t move the ball against the Big Ten’s best defense, and Illinois falls 49-14.

In the season finale, Illinois needs to find a win over Northwestern for Smith to have a chance at saving his job. Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald has different ideas. The Wildcats beat the Illini and keep the Land of Lincoln Trophy for the sixth straight year.

Less than a week after the season, Smith loses his job after a disappointing 4-8 season, and the Lovie Smith era is over in Champaign.

Neither of these two scenarios is likely to happen. Illinois fans should be excited about the 2020 season. The Illini have the potential to have a top-tier Big Ten offense and an experienced secondary that should lead Illinois to back-to-back bowl games. If Illinois finishes the regular season at 7-5 or 8-4, it will be the best season the program has had since 2007. The 2020 season is about getting to back-to-back bowl games, and Smith’s Illini should be able to do that.

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