UNC Football: Early Opponent Preview Illinois

Nov 28, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; A general shot of a Illinois Fighting Illini helmet during the second half against the Northwestern Wildcats at Soldier Field. Northwestern won 24-14. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 28, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; A general shot of a Illinois Fighting Illini helmet during the second half against the Northwestern Wildcats at Soldier Field. Northwestern won 24-14. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports /

Leading up to the first game of the season, Keeping It Heel will be doing opponent previews in reverse order.

Previous Previews:

NC State / The Citadel / Duke / Georgia Tech / Virginia / MiamiVirginia Tech / Florida State / Pittsburgh / James Madison

This Week: Illinois

Last season both teams met as squads with question marks. Illinois was 2-0 and UNC was 1-1.

However, all three wins had come against lesser competition for the schools. Two of the wins were against FCS schools and the average score was 50-6.

Illinois had given up only three points in their first two contests. UNC had surrendered 31. The end result in Chapel Hill that day was a 48-14 beat down.

With the game in Champaign and a new coach for Illini, will it be any closer this season?

Head Coach: Lovie Smith. Career Record 0-0. This will be his first season at Illinois. Though this is his first collegiate head coaching stop, it is not his only head coaching experience. Smith is 89-87 as a NFL coach with the Bears and Buccaneers. He also coached in one Super Bowl, which he lost to Indianapolis.

Lovie Smith does have some experience as a college coach also. He spent 12 seasons in the college ranks as a defensive coach.

Best Graduate: LB Dick Butkus. Hall of Famer, eight-time Pro Bowler, and eight-time All-Pro. Butkus also is a two time Defensive Player of the year. Career has 1,020 tackles, 23 interceptions, and 27 fumble recoveries.

After retiring Butkus became an actor. He has appeared in over 30 television shows and over 20 films. He also founded the Butkus foundation, a charity which has helped many who play football from the High School level up.

Second Best Graduate: LB Ray Nitschke. Hall of Famer, one-time Pro Bowler, and seven-time All-Pro. Additionally, Nitschke is a five time NFL Champion and two time Super Bowl Champion. Career has 25 interceptions and two touchdowns.

Though they didn’t attend school together, Nitschke and Butkus were rivals in the pros. With Nitschke on the Packers and Butkus on the Bears, both men anchored their respective defensives. The two men played against each other for eight NFL seasons. Nitschke’s Packers went 13-3 during that time, but the rivalry was still very strong.

Last Season: Went 5-7 (2-6 in Big Ten play). Finished sixth in the West Division. The season started with head coach Tim Beckman getting fired just seven days before the opener.

With the firing, Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit was promoted to interim Head Coach. Season highlights include starting the season 4-1 with a big win over Nebraska. They finished the season by losing six of their last seven and missing a bowl game.

Despite the poor finish, Cubit was promoted to Head Coach on November 28th. On March 5th, 2016 Cubit was relieved of his duties. Two days later, Illinois hired Lovie Smith.

Smith had been fired two months prior from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

As for Beckman? Well he’s currently helping out on Fedora’s staff.

This Season: Seven of their opponents finished last season with a winning record and nine of them made a bowl game. Illinois is playing seven home games this season. Karma would dictate that the Illini go 0-12 for the way they treated Cubit. However, Karma and football don’t always mix.

Smith is a good enough coach and there are definitely some easy wins. Another 5-7 season seems likely. However if they can surprise a team like Nebraska again, bowl eligibility is not out of reach.

Best Player: QB Wes Lunt. Last season, he completed 270 passes for 2,761 yards and 14 touchdowns against six interceptions. He also ran for one touchdown. Lunt threw for over 300 yards twice last season. He also threw for multiple touchdowns four times. In the game against UNC, he did not have his best performance. He threw for 140 yards and an interception.

Unfortunately, for Lunt, Smith is not known as a quarterback guru. Smith has previously coached Rex Grossman, Kyle Orton, Jay Cutler, Josh McCown, and Jamies Winston. Cutler had his worst professional season playing under Smith. Winston had the best season of any quarterback playing for Smith.

However, that season was attributed more to the Offensive Coordinator, who took over after Smith was fired.

Matchup: Saturday, September 10th in Champaign at 7:30 pm

Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

Prediction: This is the second game of the season for both teams. While UNC opens up strong against Georgia, Illinois opens against Murray State. Though the Illini should be better rested, the Tar Heels should be better tested. Lovie Smith has coached some strong defenses, but won’t have the players to do what he wants.

Final score: UNC 42, Illinois 21.

The Illini were not able to slow down the Tar Heels last season. That shouldn’t change this season as UNC should be the better team. The defense plays strong and Jalen Dalton breaks out as a disruptive force with three sacks and a forced fumble.

This will be UNC’s second straight power five game to start the season. A win in both and the Heels could easily be top 10. Expectations will be high, but there is no reason Carolina can’t meet them. If they play their game and avoid mistakes, Illinois will be just an early step on the path to glory.