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2021 Illinois college football preview: All eyes on Bret Bielema as the ex-Wisconsin coach returns to the Big Ten

The Illinois native is looking for redemption with a program struggling to rise from the bottom of the conference.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 19 Orange and Blue Spring Game
Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Bret Bielema looks on during the Illinois Fighting Illini Orange and Blue Spring football game on April 19, 2021, at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.
Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Illinois Fighting Illini made a coaching change during the offseason, firing Lovie Smith and bringing in Bret Bielema to try to turn the program around. Smith was unable to use his NFL connections to bring in talented recruits, and Illinois failed to find success under him.

Now AD Josh Whitman hopes Bielema, who won big at Wisconsin but not at Arkansas, can use his Illinois and Big Ten cache to make the program more competitive. It’s one of the tougher jobs in the Power Five, but the Illini probably did as well as anyone could in their search for a change of direction.

2020 Season Review

  • 2-5, 2-5 7th in Big Ten West division, No bowl
  • Can Bielema set the foundation for a successful football program? He went 12-1 in his first season at Wisconsin with Barry Alvarez’s recruits, but eventually was able to lead strong teams to back-to-back Rose Bowls. However, he struggled at Arkansas and topped out at eight wins.

2021 Talent

2021 247Sports Composite Ranking: 13
ESPN Returning Production: 70% overall (62): 80% offense (38), 61% defense (94)
Returning Talent Index: Negative, 13th in Big Ten
Returning starters: 7/11 offense, 6/11 defense
* All rankings out of 130 FBS schools

Key Player

Quarterback: Brandon Peters/Isaiah Williams/Coran Taylor

Peters is expected to be the starter, but Williams and Taylor offer enough variety to make Bielema evaluate this as an open competition. All three got enough reps last season for there to be doubt over the position. Peters is likely to be the most steady, but Williams can offer some additional flair with his legs.

Offense (non-QB): RB Chase Brown (So.)

Brown rushed for 540 yards in last season’s abbreviated schedule, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. Bielema will want to establish the run and Brown will be a big part of that. Can he have some monster games to take pressure off Illinois’ quarterback?

Defense: Jake Hansen (Sr.)

Hansen was Illinois’ best defensive player, leading the team in tackles and also adding 2.5 sacks. He’s going to have to anchor Bielema’s defense, which was usually a strong unit for the coach at Wisconsin.

Team Stats Projections

2020 SP+ final: 89th overall: 82nd offense, 88th defense, 72nd special teams
2021 SP+ projection: 83rd overall: 72nd offense, 91st defense

Odds from DraftKings Sportsbook

To win national title: +75000
To win Big Ten: +10000
Win total: 3.5 (Over -152, Under +120)

2020 Against The Spread: 3-5-0
2020 Point Total: Over 4-4

2021 Illinois Schedule

Illinois 2021 Schedule

Date Opponent Time (ET)/TV Spread/Total
Date Opponent Time (ET)/TV Spread/Total
Saturday, Aug. 28 vs. Nebraska 1:00 p.m./Fox Ill +9.5
Saturday, Sep. 4 vs. UTSA 7:30 p.m./BTN Ill -7.5
Saturday, Sep. 11 at Virginia 11:00 a.m./ACCN Ill +10.5
Friday, Sep. 17 vs. Maryland 9:00 p.m./FS1 Ill +6.5
Saturday, Sep. 25 at Purdue TBA Ill +10.5
Saturday, Oct. 2 vs. Charlotte TBA Ill -15
Saturday, Oct. 9 at Wisconsin TBA Ill +17.5
Saturday, Oct. 16 OPEN TBA N/A
Saturday, Oct. 23 at Penn State 12:00 p.m./TBA Ill +20.5
Saturday, Oct. 30 vs. Rutgers TBA N/A
Saturday, Nov. 6 at Minnesota TBA Ill +14.5
Saturday, Nov. 13 OPEN TBA N/A
Saturday, Nov. 20 at Iowa TBA Ill +21.5
Saturday, Nov. 27 vs. Northwestern TBA Ill +6.5