What’s next for Illinois under Lovie Smith? Amid a four-win season that included a 63–0 blowout loss to Iowa on Senior Day in late November, there was your regularly programmed hot seat chatter. In his three years in Champaign, Smith has yet to totally rebuild the program, entering year four with a 9–27 overall record, 4–23 in the Big Ten. If there was more room for pessimism, 15 players entered the transfer portal this offseason, according to 247Sports’s tracker. Not great.
But may we introduce a potential positive storyline? Despite the steadily dismal outlook, Smith and his staff have added a handful of talent heading into this 2019 season, using the transfer portal in their favor arguably as well as anybody. Illinois has new players from Alabama, Georgia, USC and Michigan, most of whom are eligible to play immediately and expect to make an impact on the field this fall. The Fighting Illini haven’t had a top 40 recruiting class—much less a winning season—since 2011, but maybe Smith has figured something out on the transfer market.
It just so happens, too, that one of the biggest question marks for Illinois now is its quarterback situation. Former starter AJ Bush graduated and backup M.J. Rivers announced his intention to transfer this spring. Four-star prospect Isaiah Williams, the No. 2 overall prospect out of the state of Missouri, caught some buzz when he followed through on his commitment and signed with the Illini on National Signing Day, and Smith has stated that he would get a chance to compete for the starting job alongside inexperienced youngsters Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor.
But the real hype got rolling early this week when Illinois snagged one of the most proven quarterbacks still in the transfer portal. Tuesday night, Brandon Peters announced his plans to leave Michigan for Illinois. The former four-star recruit started four games for the Wolverines as a redshirt freshman in 2017 and completed 58 passes for 680 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions, but lost his job once Shea Patterson arrived. The good news for Illinois is that Peters has graduated, which means he can play immediately for Illinois and also has two years of eligibility remaining.
Peters will join a team full of eager transfers just like him, all of whom have a strong chance of starting for the Illini this fall. There’s a pair of former four-star wide receivers from USC in Trevon Sidney and Josh Imatorbhebhe, plus former five-star defensive end Oluwole Betiku, who signed with the Trojans as the No. 15 overall recruit in 2016; Alabama offensive lineman Richie Petibon (the nation’s fifth-ranked guard prospect in 2015) and former Georgia tight end Luke Ford (No. 51 overall recruit in 2018), who was denied a transfer waiver to gain immediate eligibility and must sit out the 2019 season.
These are solid additions to a team striving to make its first bowl game since 2014. Five or six wins is certainly doable in the Big Ten West, where another conference win or two have been there for the taking in recent years. Illinois eases into the season with three winnable games against Akron, UConn and Eastern Michigan, but then it’s straight into Big Ten play, including cross-division games with Michigan and Michigan State. Anything short of making the postseason in year four, and a new coach will likely take over what Smith has been trying to build the last three years. He agreed to an extension with the school at the end of last season, but Smith’s buyout drops from $12 million in 2018 to $4 million this year and $2 million in 2020, making it less painful for the Illini to cut ties if the on-field product stagnates.
Can Peters and the rest of the recent arrivals help move the Illini up another rung and stir up some faith in Smith’s long-term plan? There’s not much room for error in what could be a make-or-break season for their new program.