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Illinois Football: 3 Reasons for Optimism About the Fighting Illini in 2022

Bret Bielema, Illinois Fighting Illini Football

Bret Bielema-coached teams have taken big steps forward in his second year at previous schools and the Illini are hoping for the same this fall

As Illinois enters it's second season under Bret Bielema, it does so with higher hopes this time around. Although they finished with a 5-7 record last year, it could have been much worse when you consider these mitigating factors: issues at quarterback, injuries across the board, and struggles on defense.

Bielema worked well with this team, all things considered. And after some changes, and looking back at Bielema's track record, the Illini are actually expected to get better in 2022. Here are three reasons for optimism about the Illini's chances next season.

1. New offensive coordinator

Before ever coaching a game in Champaign, Bielema pulled Tony Petersen from Appalachian State to be the Illini's play-caller. In 2020, Petersen guided the Mountaineers' 23rd-ranked offense (452.0 ypg). They also were No. 2 in the Sun Belt in both rushing (264.9 ypg) and scoring offense (33.8 ppg). But those numbers didn't translate over to the Illini in 2021.

Under Petersen's guidance, the Illini wound up 11th in the Big Ten in total offense (329.8 ypg), they were the league's worst passing offense (156.2 ypg), and finished in the bottom 15 in the nation in scoring offense (19.8 ppg). The one thing they did do well was run the ball, which they finished seventh in the conference in that category (173.6 ypg). But they didn't put up the type of numbers that Petersen helped produce at Appalachian State.

So Bielema didn't hesitate to make a change with the hope of turning things around on this side of the ball. Enter Barry Lunney Jr., who previously drew up the playbook for last year's Conference USA champions, the UTSA Roadrunners. He also was Bielema's tight ends coach at Arkansas from 2013-17.

Under Lunney's direction, the Roadrunners finished last season 34th nationally in total offense (439.0 ypg), tied for 11th in scoring offense (36.9 ppg), ranked second in C-USA in rushing (183.5 ypg), and were fifth in the conference in passing offense (255.5 ypg). Whether or not Illinois can put up similar numbers next season remains to be seen, but Lunney's history with Bielema should make for a smooth transition.

2. Key players are returning

Quarterbacks Artur Sitkowski (704 passing yds., 6 TDs in '21) and Matt Robinson, running backs Chase Brown, Joshua McCray, Reggie Love III, and Jakari Norwood (combined for 1,832 rushing yds. last year), wide receiver Isaiah Williams (525 receiving yds., 4 TDs), tight end Luke Ford (114 yds.), defensive lineman Jamal Woods (12 tackles), linebacker Tariq Barnes (44 tackles, 2.0 sacks), and defensive back Sydney Brown (43 tackles, 3 pass breakups) are all set to return.

These players will provide stability, consistency, familiarity, and more importantly, leadership to this team. Which will certainly serve Illinois well as they look to take the next step next season.

3. Bielema's record speaks for itself

The 2021 campaign was only the third losing season in what's been an otherwise successful career for Bielema. And a look at the numbers shows that Year Two usually works in his favor. In his second year at Wisconsin in 2007, the Badgers posted a 9-4 record, earned a trip to the Outback Bowl, and finished the season as the 24th ranked team in the country.

In season two at Arkansas (2014), Bielema guided the Razorbacks to a 7-6 campaign, which was capped off with a win in the Texas Bowl. Bielema is 102-65 as a head coach with three Big Ten titles (2010-12), four double-digit win seasons, and four bowl game victories under his belt. All signs point to the Illini turning the corner in '22.

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