Fourth Down

September 2019 View more

By Bob Asmussen

Since taking over in 2016, Smith is 9–27 and has failed to reach a single bowl game for the University of Illinois. The football team has been at its worst in conference games, going 4–23, including the first 0–9 league finish in school history. 

When Smith first arrived at Illinois, he signed a six-year contract. After three losing seasons, athletic director Josh Whitman gave him a two-year contract extension—likely in part due to the amount of money it would cost Illinois to terminate Smith. If the school decides to make a change, it is going to be costly: $4 million after the 2019 season, $2 million after 2020, and $1 million after 2021.

In 30 years covering University of Illinois football for the Champaign News-Gazette, I’ve seen five coaches fired and one leave for another job. What’s it going to be for Lovie Smith? This season will help decide if the former Bears coach can turn Illinois football around.

Memorial Stadium — Photo courtesy University of Illinois Athletics


If the freshman phenom is ready.

St. Louis Trinity’s Isaiah Williams is the most highly anticipated quarterback to join the Illini since Isiah “Juice” Williams in 2006. The new Williams is expected to help right away. 

If Reggie Corbin hits 1K again.

The tailback gained just 78 yards in 2017 before romping for 1,085 in 2018. Corbin is on the watch list for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation’s top running back.

If the offensive line keeps drilling.

Four starters are back, and the lone departee, Nick Allegretti, is being replaced by Alabama transfer Richie Petitbon. Center Doug Kramer and tackles Vederian Lowe and Alex Palczewski are Chicago-area products.

If he sweeps nonconference games.

Akron, UConn, and Eastern Michigan went a combined 12–25 last season and lost gobs of players to graduation. Smith has never started 3–0 at Illinois. It’s time.

If Lovie loses the beard.

The coach’s thick, white facial hair is a hot topic among Illini fans on social media. The consensus: Please shave. They hope the beard has been part of the problem.


If the defense can’t stop anybody.

In 2018, the Illini gave up 63 points to Penn State, Maryland, and Iowa. The unit finished 123rd (out of 129) in points allowed. Yuck.

If another star player gets hurt.

The Illini are already without defensive end Bobby Roundtree, who suffered an off-season injury. Depth is an issue. 

If the crowds turn against him.

When Smith was hired before the 2016 season, he had the full support of the Illinois fans. But after a 9–27 start, their patience is running out.

If the staff changes don’t work.

Bob McClain is taking over the offensive line. Former Illini Mike Bellamy is now coaching the running backs. Miles Smith, Lovie’s son, is working with the linebackers. Keynodo Hudson is now in charge of the cornerbacks. And, most important, Lovie Smith is now the defensive coordinator. Nobody else is to blame if the team continues to struggle.

If the schedule is too difficult.

The Illini face eight teams that played in bowls last season. Finding wins against Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, and Northwestern won’t be easy. The Illini figure to be underdogs in all those games.