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Illinois Football: 2021 Fighting Illini Season Preview and Prediction

The Fighting Illini rank No. 84 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2021
Owen Carney Jr., Illinois Fighting Illini Football

Owen Carney Jr. and Illinois are starting over under new head coach Bret Bielema

Five years ago, new Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman took a shot on longtime NFL coach Lovie Smith, turning over the program to him.

It didn't work. Away from the college game for more than two decades, Smith never found his footing and went 17–39 with no winning seasons. He was fired after the COVID-19-shortened 2020 campaign.

Illinois didn't wait long to name Smith's replacement, hiring Bret Bielema off the staff of the NFL's New York Giants.

Why Bielema? Start with his Big Ten-heavy background (Prophetstown, Ill., native, former Iowa player, long run of success as Wisconsin head coach.)

Bielema said all the right things early in his Illinois tenure, showing a level of competence Illini fans crave.

"The overall feeling on this campus is pretty special," Bielema says.

One of Smith's great failures was his inability to connect with Illinois high school coaches. Bielema went right to work, putting recruiting the state at the top of his to-do list. There are many bridges that need to be repaired.

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

Previewing Illinois' Offense for 2021

COVID-19 protocols forced starting quarterback Brandon Peters to miss three games early in the 2020 season. He started five and led the team in passing for the second year in a row.

First-year coordinator Tony Petersen is happy to have Peters back. The former Michigan transfer was competing for the starting job in the spring with redshirt freshman Isaiah Williams, who saw his first career action in 2020. However, Williams shifted to receiver and will remain there in the fall. Rutgers transfer Art Sitkowski is expected to work as the backup to Peters.

The strength of the offense figures to be up front, where four starters return. Center Doug Kramer is again the leader of the unit and is joined by four-year starting tackle Vederian Lowe. Tackle Alex Palczewski is expected back from a serious knee injury.

Chase Brown returns at tailback and will be joined by transfer Chase Hayden. They will get plenty of work.

Tight end is another strength, with Daniel Barker and Luke Ford returning.

The great unknown is receiver, where Miami transfer Brian Hightower and former walk-on Donny Navarro III are the top returnees. Backup kicker Caleb Griffin was given a try during the spring.

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Previewing Illinois' Defense for 2021

During Smith's five seasons, the team relied on takeaways. In Smith's final season, Illinois ranked 47th nationally in turnovers produced.

But the unit was 114th in yards allowed and 97th in points allowed. Hardly a winning formula.

New coordinator Ryan Walters has basic traits he looks for in winning defenses: solid communication, endless effort, attention to detail, physicality and the ability to work well together and stop the run.

Walters also wants his unit to "confuse and harass the quarterback."

Walters and his staff plan to adapt the Illinois scheme to the talents of the returning players. He has a linchpin in linebacker Jake Hansen, who has 10 career forced fumbles as an Illini. Only NFL first-round picks Simeon Rice and Whitney Mercilus had more.

Hansen earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2020. "He's a proven guy," Walters said. "He's got a lot of experience. He seems like he approaches his business the right way."

The strength up front starts with returnees Owen Carney Jr., Roderick Perry II and Jamal Woods. Carney led the team and ranked among Big Ten leaders with five sacks.

Hansen will be joined at linebacker by Khalan Tolson and Tarique Barnes, who is returning from a leg injury.

In the secondary, Tony Adams was one of the leading tacklers in the Big Ten in 2020 and enters his fourth season as starter. Cornerback Devon Witherspoon started the final seven games of 2020 and had two interceptions.

Previewing Illinois' Specialists for 2021

Australian Blake Hayes enters his fifth season as starting punter after earning third-team All-Big Ten honors in 2020. He was the all-league punter the previous seasons. Hayes is second at Illinois in career punting average, just behind longtime NFL standout Steve Weatherford. Nobody in Illinois history has more than his 258 career punts.

James McCourt is one of the top returning kickers in the Big Ten. He owns last-second game-winning field goals against Wisconsin (2019) and Rutgers (2020).

Final Analysis

Bielema faces serious challenges as he attempts to rebuild one of the Big Ten's great underachievers. The program hasn't had a winning season in 10 years and has been to just six bowls in the past two decades.

Unlike most new head coaches, Bielema has the advantage of an experienced roster, helped by several super senior returnees from the 2020 team. The talented offensive line and an underwhelming schedule give Bielema a chance to reach a bowl in his first season.

The Illini will need some breaks along the way and must avoid injuries to key personnel, especially Peters and Hansen.

National Ranking: 84

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