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Illinois Fighting Illini vs. South Florida Bulls Preview and Prediction

Lovie Smith

Lovie Smith

Lovie Smith will return to Tampa when his Illinois Fighting Illini face the weather-weary South Florida Bulls on Friday night. Smith, who was head coach of the Buccaneers (2014-15) prior to taking the job at Illinois, will be back on the sideline of Raymond James Stadium for this matchup of 2-0 teams.

South Florida Bulls QB Quinton Flowers

Illinois is 2-0 after winning just three games in Smith’s first season as head coach. But the Illini have been far from impressive in defeating Ball State and Western Kentucky. South Florida also is off to a 2-0 start in Charlie Strong’s first season, as the Bulls have overpowered San Jose State and FCS member Stony Brook.

The pending arrival of Hurricane Irma forced South Florida to cancel last week’s scheduled game against Connecticut, and the monster storm also cast some doubt as to whether this game would be played. But officials determined that the stadium and surrounding areas were in good enough shape that the game could be played as scheduled without interrupting the ongoing clean up and recovery efforts.

While South Florida is playing this week, UCF (vs. Georgia Tech) and FIU (at Indiana) both canceled their games, while Miami vs. Florida State was rescheduled for Oct. 7.

Illinois at South Florida

Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: South Florida -18

Three Things to Watch

1. South Florida’s focus

This one is understandable. The Bulls have been through a lot over the past week, and let’s not forget these players are college students, many of them teenagers. For some, Hurricane Irma may be the most significant event they have had to deal with in their young lives (that they can remember), and even if it isn’t, the massive natural disaster has clearly impacted the team as a whole.

Not only did Irma force the cancellation of last week’s game against Connecticut, the hurricane also has impacted preparations for the matchup with Illinois. The players returned to the practice field on Tuesday for the first time since last Thursday. Couple that missed practice time with the fact their last game was two weeks ago, and it would be perfectly understandable if the Bulls came out flat. But add to that the anxiety felt before Irma hit, all of the emotions experienced these last few days, the lengthy clean up and recovery that lies ahead not just in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan area but also throughout the state, and the uncertainty regarding the atmosphere in Raymond James Stadium on Friday night, and there’s no telling how this team will look when the focus, at least for a few hours, shifts to what happens on the field.

2. Quinton Flowers
One of the most productive and explosive players in college football last season, Flowers entered 2017 as a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate and widely considered one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. Two games in and the senior dual threat has gotten off to somewhat of a slow start. He has 535 total yards of offense (267.5 ypg) after averaging 334 per game last season. What’s more telling, however, is that his yards per play are down by more than two yards (5.9 vs. 8.2) and he has accounted for five total touchdowns (4 pass, 1 rush) after racking up 42 scores (24 pass, 18 rush) in 2016.

It’s still early and he’s also had to deal with plenty of unexpected interruptions, but if the Bulls want to represent the Group of 5 in a New Year’s Six bowl, they really need their best player to make his presence felt. This being South Florida’s lone chance against a Power 5 team (and one that currently ranks in the top 50 nationally in both total and scoring defense), there’s no better time than Friday night in front of a national TV audience for Flowers to flash his 2016 form.

3. Can Illinois put up a fight on O?
The Illini are 2-0 in large part thanks to their defense. Illinois enters this game 28th in FBS in scoring (14.0 ppg) and 44th (309.5 ypg) in total defense. The Illini have been particular stingy against the run (88.5 ypg) and also have forced four turnovers. Scoff if you want at the competition Illinois has played, but holding a Western Kentucky team that led the nation in scoring (45.5 ppg) in 2016 to a single touchdown is pretty impressive.

The same cannot be said for the other side of the ball, however, as the Illini have managed just 258 yards of offense per game. That has them near the bottom of the FBS ranks. The passing offense has been practically non-existent, producing just 252 yards with more interceptions thrown (2) than touchdowns (1) in the first two games. Chayce Crouch has struggled, completing 54.5 percent of his passes despite the presence of quality wide receivers in Mikey Dudek and Malik Turner. The running game isn’t exactly tearing things up (3.3 ypc as a team), but freshman Mike Epstein (5.2) has been a pleasant surprise early. The bottom line is someone will need to step up for Illinois on offense because the defense will have its hands full trying to slow down South Florida.

Final Analysis

It’s certainly not business as usual for South Florida, and understandably so. The Bulls have dealt with plenty over the past week and haven’t played since Sept. 2. Illinois comes into this game 2-0 but the Fighting Illini still have plenty room for improvement, especially on offense. No one would be surprised if South Florida gets off to a slow start, whether that’s due to rust or that the coaches and players are still processing everything that has transpired. In the end, however, the Bulls have more than enough talent to match up with their Big Ten opponent, especially at the quarterback position. Quinton Flowers shakes off his slow start and puts together a Heisman-worthy performance in prime time as South Florida gives their weather-weary fans something to cheer about and puts a damper on Lovie Smith’s Tampa homecoming in the process.

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Prediction: South Florida 31, Illinois 17