Make no mistake about it, this is a different Illinois team than the one Carolina dismantled 48-14 last year. That team was breaking in a brand new coach after a familiar name, Tim Beckman, was fired just a week before the start of last season. The game was never really close, and the Heels broke it wide open in the second half.
That was then, and this is now. Illinois made a splash this offseason when they hired former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith. Known for his defensive prowess, Smith is a fiery coach who gets the most out of his players. He is a great hire for the program, and at the very least rejuvenates the Illini faithful.
Because Lovie Smith is a first-year college coach, there is very limited film on this Illinois team. The Fighting Illini pounded FCS foe Murray State 52-3. They were very "vanilla," as Larry Fedora put it, in their offensive approach during their first game, and much of the same should be expected this coming Saturday. Plain or not, Illinois will come to play and play hard. Larry Fedora noted this in his Wednesday post-practice interview when he praised the Illini for how hard they played and how it was noticeable on film.
The Illinois offense returns a familiar face at quarterback in Wes Lunt, the starter for the third consecutive season, but who had to learn a whole new offense in the offseason. He is not expected to be relied on as heavily in the passing game this year, but the six-foot-five senior is still a reliable, efficient quarterback. Lining up behind him at the tailback position is sophomore Ke’Shawn Vaughn who looks to improve upon a solid Freshman campaign. Not much more is known about the Illini offense, and the Carolina defense should be looking forward to potentially having a nice rebound game after letting Nick Chubb rush for 222 yards.
The defense is without a doubt the strong point of the Illinois football team. Defensive end Dawuane Smoot gets most of the national recognition, but Hardy Nickerson, who transferred to play for his father, defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson Sr., is also a force to be reckoned with. Last year, he led Cal with 112 tackles. In order to be successful, North Carolina must establish its ground game with Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan, and win the battle up front to open up lanes for the talented backs.
The Fighting Illini secondary is much more unproven. It only returns one of last years’ top seven defensive backs, and is still trying to find its identity. What better way to find out then going against one of the most talented wide receiver groups in the country? Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins, and Bug Howard will look to impose their will on the unproven youth of the Illinois secondary. Look for Mitch Trubisky to bounce back in a big way and have a huge game spreading the ball around to his wide receivers.
This matchup is hard to predict because of the unproven nature of the Illinois football team, but given the fact that Illinois has a young secondary and is still developing a new offense, expect the Tar Heels to have a nice bounce back game.