Lovie Smith's tenure as Illinois' head coach is finally starting to bear fruit. The Fighting Illini (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten) clinched bowl eligibility two weeks ago, and after a bye, they'll have a chance to finish with their best record since 2007, when they appeared in the Rose Bowl.
But Illinois' 2019 season was not always filled with so much promise. It began with skepticism, and who could blame the naysayers for feeling that way? From 2016 to '18, the Illini posted a 9-27 record (4-23 Big Ten) under Smith. They were a lowly 7-13 at home, 2-13 on the road, and 0-10 against ranked teams. It seemed that perhaps Smith had gotten in over his head by giving college football a try for the first time in his respected career.
Despite the lack of success from a win-loss standpoint, Smith received a two-year contract extension after the end of last season when Illinois went 4-8. Understandably, the decision was questioned by many. So Smith entered 2019 with plenty to prove as while he may not have been atop the "hot seat" list, it was certainly starting to get warm.
And through the first six weeks of the season, it looked as if the Illini were headed towards a repeat of 2018 as a four-game losing streak left them at 2-4 halfway through their schedule. But following a 42-25 home loss to Michigan on Oct. 12, something changed and Illinois hasn't lost since, rattling off four straight wins prior to last week's bye.
And the wins haven't been cheap either. There was a last-second field goal to defeat then-No. 6 Wisconsin. That was followed by convincing victories over Purdue and Rutgers and then pulling off the largest comeback in school history (34 points) to take down Michigan State for the first time since 2016. That victory also secured bowl eligibility for Illinois for the first time since 2014.
So with a postseason berth in tow, the Illini set their sights on the final two games in the regular season — at No. 19 Iowa and home vs. Northwestern. With a shot at finishing above .500 for the first time since 2011, here are eight players in particular that have helped Smith orchestrate the turnaround in Champaign.
Brandon Peters, QB
Peters transferred from Michigan to elevate a quarterback position that had seen plenty of turnover since Smith took the Illinois job in 2016. The Indiana native has not only brought stability under center, but he's also become the most efficient signal-caller that Smith has had at his disposal. Peters is completing 55.1 percent of his attempts for 1,486 yards and 16 touchdowns. He's also averaging 7.2 yards per attempt and has only thrown five interceptions despite being sacked 21 times. His 136.1 passer rating ranks seventh in the Big Ten.
Peters got lost in the quarterback shuffle at Michigan but has found a home at Illinois. And it's a home in which he has two more years of eligibility remaining.
Reggie Corbin, Dre Brown, and Ra'Von Bonner, RBs
Originally Brown and Bonner were expected to carry the load, but then Corbin decided to forego this year's NFL draft and return to Illinois for his senior year. The three have formed a nice backfield trio, combining for 1,250 rushing yards, 129 receiving yards, and 14 total touchdowns. This group is so effective that there have been occasions when all three were on the field for the same play. These athletes are vital weapons in this offense, and they'll be leaned on heavily during this final stretch.
Josh Imatorbhebhe, WR
The USC transfer went from catching just two passes for the Trojans in 2017 to becoming one of the Big Ten's top receivers in '19 after sitting out last year. Imatorbhebhe is tied for the conference lead in touchdown catches (9) and has accounted for roughly half of Peters' touchdown passes. He also ranks second in yards per reception (21.5), sits 10th in receiving yards (598), and has the Big Ten's longest touchdown catch of the season (83 yards). Imatorbhebhe has caught at least one touchdown pass in each of his last four games, and his two scores against Michigan State served as the spark for Illinois' historic comeback. With another year under his belt, he could be a solid draft pick in 2021.
Jake Hansen and Dele Harding, LBs
Lovie Smith's history with linebackers speaks for itself. And at Illinois, he has a couple of pretty good ones in Hansen and Harding. The duo has accounted for 193 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, four interceptions, 10 forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, and Harding has scored twice on a pair of pick-sixes. The Illini's ability to create turnovers (FBS-best 26) has been a big key in the turnaround (+14 turnover differential, also No. 1 in the nation) and these two have been at the forefront of creating havoc. They are undoubtedly the heart of this defense.
Oluwole Betiku Jr., DE
Betiku has stepped up huge as a pass rusher in the absence of Bobby Roundtree, who sustained a serious spinal injury this spring that could end his playing career. Like Josh Imatorbhebhe, Betiku also transferred from USC where he saw limited playing time. This season, Betiku leads Illinois with eight sacks and has been credited with 29 total tackles. He has a ton of upside and two more years of eligibility, which gives Smith a strong building block after this season.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of @IlliniFootball)