In the weeks leading up to the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ season opener on Thursday, Aug. 29, we are previewing each of the Gophers’ Big Ten West opponents by subjecting contributors from their respective SB Nation sites to an intense Q&A session.
Every team in the Big Ten West has question marks. But what are the areas of your team that have periods for punctuation or even exclamation points?
Stephen Cohn: Periods? Most of the team. Whenever you lose 63-0 on Senior Day and then have an abysmal offseason of recruiting (three guys currently in the class of 2020), the entire program seems to be a period. Presumably, the only exclamation points are the things that haven’t disappointed the fanbase recently: Marquez Beason and Isaiah Williams. The duo of freshmen are some of the highest-rated recruits Illinois has ever had, and are looking like locks to be impact players — for good or bad — early on in 2019.
Tristen Kissack: Literally every position group except running back, the offensive line, and the kickers.
Okay, now I have to ask about the question marks. What are they?
SC: My first question mark goes to the defensive line, and how can you replace the production of a 2020 NFL Draft pick in Bobby Roundtree. If you didn’t know, Roundtree had a swimming accident in May and spent most of the summer in a hospital. While he’ll be returning to Champaign for school, he won’t be playing football. So where does that production come from now? Honestly, no idea. Also, quarterback. You lose M.J. Rivers to transfer. A.J. Bush graduates. Coran Taylor never played. Matt Robinson almost never played. Brandon Peters is a question mark. Everything under center is a question mark.
TK: Stephen summed up the quarterback situation pretty well. I think between Peters and IW we’ll find a competent guy under center. IW is the better fit systematically, but asking a 5-foot-10, 170-pound freshman to step in and take licks from Big Ten defenses… well, you see the issue. The receiving corps is largely inexperienced with a pair of intriguing USC transfers — Trevon Sidney and Josh Imatorbhebe. The linebacker position is also concerning. Hansen, Cooper, and Eifler are a few names to keep your eye on, but the losing Del’Shawn Phillips hurts.
Is there a non-conference or early season game that will serve as a barometer for the rest of your season?
SC: Eastern Michigan. Illinois fans expect to defeat Akron and UConn to start off 2-0, but EMU consistently upsets Big Ten foes now (Northwestern and Purdue), and they have the Illini targeted now. If Illinois loses to the Eagles, that’s a sign of more bad to come, probably a 3-4 win season. IF ILLINOIS WINS, they’re halfway to a bowl game and in shape to have progress this season.
TK: Definitely EMU. Akron is bad. UConn is even worse. The Eagles will give Illinois the toughest test in the non-conference. If the Illini lose this game, there’s a decent chance Lovie doesn’t make it to the end of the season.
What game do you have circled on your calendar? It can be your most anticipated matchup or perhaps the team’s toughest test (or both).
SC: Akron, Week 1. If Illinois shows up again like it did against Kent State to open the season last year, it’s not going to be pretty. Everyone else gets to pounce on an opponent during the season. Illinois should too. Give it to the Zips.
TK: At Minnesota, Week 5. Outside of Rutgers, this is one of the best chances Illinois has to pick up a conference win. Beat Minnesota, and all of a sudden you’re sitting at four wins with games against the Scarlet Knights and at Purdue to put yourself at six wins and catapult into the first bowl game since 2014.
If you had to pinpoint a trap game on the schedule, what would it be?
SC: Already said it, but Eastern Michigan. The UConn game is on the road, but Illinois should not be intimidated to go out east. But a home game against Eastern Michigan. It might not be a trap; Illinois might be the underdog.
TK: In order to have a trap game, you have to be favored, and there will be very few times where the Illini will find themselves in that position. Has to be EMU.
Make the case for why the Illini will win the West.
SC: Are we only answering this because everyone is answering this? (Editor’s Note: ... Maybe.) Basically, things just need to go so right. I don’t have a situation because I don’t think a situation exists. But it could, because the West is bad, and Illinois could catch up to the rest of the division. Quarterback play would have to be surprising; Edwin Carter and Ricky Smalling become one of the best duos on the outside in the conference; Reggie Corbin rushes for 1,500 yards; and the defense takes a step forward (like 10 steps). And then Illinois has a chance. Outside chance.
TK: The NCAA comes down hard on Iowa, Nebraska, Purdue, Minnesota, Northwestern, and Wisconsin midseason, declares them all ineligible and forces each program to forfeit the rest of their season. The Illini are deemed winners of the West by default.
Okay, now make the case for why the Illini won’t win the West.
SC: Things go as we expect. Lovie gets fired at the end of the season.
TK: Yeah, this is pretty much the expectation. If Illinois doesn’t finish last, the season was a major success because that means wins over Rutgers and at least one other conference foe.
I can’t let you go without an actual prediction on the record. Who wins the West?
TK: I hate to agree with Stephen here, but I’m also taking Nebraska. The Cornhuskers play their most difficult games all at home, Adrian Martinez is legit, and they should be much improved under year two of the [head coach Scott] Frost administration. The defense will have to take a step up, however.