2022 Illinois Fighting Illini Preview

by Matt Fargo

Illinois Fighting Illini

2021-22 Season Record 5-7 (4-5 Big Ten) - 7-4-1 ATS - 3-8-1 O/U

Returning Starters

Offense - 7
Defense - 6

Overview

Rough times continue in Champaign as it was another losing season in 2021, the 10th straight for the Illini although two of those were .500 seasons that ended in a bowl loss. Illinois has not finished in the final rankings since 2007 when it finished No. 20 in the AP Poll which was also the last season it had more than seven wins. The Lovie Smith experiment failed and Illinois brought in a successful former Big Ten coach in Bret Bielema and his first season was far from horrible at 5-7 but he inherited a roster that had 17 starters and was loaded with seniors but despite a decent number coming back in 2022, it is not close to the same scenario. Bielema fell into a great situation following the great Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin but this is a totally different culture, one that really should be better where it is located. Another non-bowl season is likely but this could be the right guy.

Offense

Four of the seven losses came by one possession and that was because of an offense that could not score and Illinois went through a stretch where it scored 17 or fewer points in six of eight games after putting up 30 points in each of its first two games. The Illini were No. 117 in scoring offense and No. 111 in total offense but it will be better if the quarterback play can show some consistency. Artur Sitkowski opened the season as the starter and completed only 50 percent of his passes for 704 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions before getting hurt and he will be challenged by Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito who is capable. Whoever gets the starting nod will have the leading receiver back in Isaiah Williams as well as leading rusher in Chase Brown who ran for 1.005 yards. The offensive line will be a work in progress but Bielema is known for maximum production. 

Defense

The defense was extremely potent as it allowed only 21.9 ppg which was No. 31 overall and Illinois allowed over 100 fewer ypg that it did in 2021 and a solid core is back. The defensive line caused havoc with pressure on the quarterback which helped out the passing defense that was No. 44 in the country but the rushing defense needs to shore up after giving up 151.4 ypg. The Illini had 30 sacks which was No. 49 in the nation which was the most for the program in a decade and there is a ton of depth as 14 players registered at least one sack with a lot of those returning. However, the two top linebackers are gone and while they are deep at the position, there is not a ton of long-term playing time. The secondary held their own but their leading interceptor is gone and safety Sydney Brown will lead the unit after registering a team high 81 tackles last season.

2022 Season Outlook

The problem for Illinois last season was a 1-4 start with three of those losses coming by a combined 14 points. The Illini recovered well with four wins in seven games down the stretch including wins over Penn St. and Minnesota as double-digit underdogs and that is a huge thing that can carry a young team into the next season. Bielema has the staff in place for success and his recruiting should get better in a place that is surrounded by star talent out of high school. A good start to the season should take place with home games against Wyoming, Virginia and Chattanooga as well as its conference opener at Indiana which can be won. The Big Ten schedule features four home games against teams with projected wins of 7.5, not easy. The O/U win total is 4.5 and while the early games are winnable, the latter 2/3 of them are a beast and it will take major upsets to get to the over. 

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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