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Offseason Dispatches: A Q&A with The Champaign Room

The Fighting Illini have a new coach and are once again rebuilding.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The Purdue Cannon is kind of Purdue’s forgotten rivalry, but it is dead even after more than 125 years of being played. They re technically our closest opponent, and it has made for some fun games over the years. To discuss the Illini we have Tristan Kissack of The Champaign Room stopping by:

T-Mill: It’s Bret time in Champaign! How are things different under the three-time Big Ten champion?

Tristen: It’s still really early in Bret’s tenure at Illinois, but the major difference from what we’ve seen from the current staff and Lovie’s staff is the recruiting initiative. Without having coached a single game for the Illini, he’s already secured 10 commitments for the class of 2022 with the most recent addition being the most impressive, 3-star WR Eian Pugh, who just recently committed from a very good Cincinnati team. It’s still early but the class checks in at no. 35 nationally, which would be Illinois’ best since 2009.

T-Mill: The series with Purdue is a perfectly balanced 45-45-6 after last year. Does that make this year feel a little more special for one of the most forgotten trophies in the league?

Tristen: It’s been a while since any rivalry for Illinois Football has felt “special” I’d say. Purdue has gotten the better of Illinois for much of the last 20 years. The hope and expectation is that Bret can establish Illinois as a .500 football team year in and year out. No coach at Illinois has been able to muster that kind of success in quite some time. Maybe then those Northwestern and Purdue games will feel a bit more special than they have recently.

T-Mill: The offense last year was... not good. What is Bielema going to do different to fix things?

Tristen: There wasn’t much of any good last year, although Wisconsin giving our starting quarterback COVID in week one didn’t exactly help matters (kidding). But things would’ve looked a lot better had Illinois not started about 7 different guys at QB through four weeks. We’ve already seen a couple intriguing position changes on that side of the ball. Most notably, Isaiah Williams, a five-star athlete coming out of high school with premiere offers is moving from QB to wideout (the position he was offered by many of those schools to play). That’s where my eyes will be fixed this fall. Plus, we have a lot of key returners, especially on the offensive line so the staff has a lot to work with.

T-Mill: Between Brandon Peters and Artur Sitkowski you have QBs with three wins at Ross-Ade. Are they officially Boiler killers, especially since the road team has dominated this series lately?

Tristen: Er, no.

T-Mill: The defense wasn’t exactly great last year. How are things being fixed?

Tristen: Finding actual qualified coaches to lead position groups was a good start! I think a lot of the complaints with Lovie’s system stem from the fact that it was simply outdated and not fit for a college football team in today’s era. Bret poached Ryan Walters from Mizzou to come be the defensive coordinator. Kevin Kane was another nice acquisition who came over from defensive coordinator at SMU to be the linebackers coach/associate HC. So I think the pieces Bret has put in place will help more than any actual on-field additions.

T-Mill: What are your way-too-early expectations for 2021?

Tristen: There is a lot of returners for 2021 which puts Bret in a great position to hit the ground running in Champaign. I expect this team to finish right around that 6-6 mark in year one. Like I mentioned earlier, the bar is set pretty low for any football coach that takes a job in Champaign. This isn’t a traditional powerhouse or really even one of competence. If you can come in and coach the team to about .500 or a little better each year and grab a bowl win every couple years, you’re getting a statue built outside of Memorial Stadium.