The Sporting News Ranks Illini's Lovie Smith 73rd Among 130 FBS Coaches

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Lovie Smith’s rating rose in the rankings done by The Sporting News among the 130 Football Bowl Subdivision coaches.

The Illini head coach, who is slated to begin his fifth season in Champaign-Urbana, was placed at No. 73 in the nation and No. 12 among the 14 Big Ten Conference programs. Smith’s TSN ranking is up 15 spots from last season after he took Illinois to a 6-7 record last year that culminated in a Redbox Bowl berth, the Illini's first bowl in five years.

“Even without adding anyone (before the start of this upcoming season), we have confidence in this football team,” Smith said in March during a media teleconference. “We talk a lot about the graduate transfers who are coming but I’m basing our optimism on what we have right now.”

When hired by Illinois in 2016, Smith returned to college football for the first time since 1996 after spending 19 years in the NFL, including 11 years as a head coach. Smith owns an 89-87 (.506) career record as an NFL head coach from 2004-2012 and 2014-2015 and went 3-3 in playoff games, including one trip to the Super Bowl. He also has a Super Bowl appearance as the defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams.

However, the first three years of his rebuild for Illini football was less-than-kind to Smith’s record as he won just four Big Ten games and lost 18 games by 20 points or more. 

"The football team has come a long way. We’re disappointed in the loss, of course,” Smith said after the Redbox Bowl loss to California. “But there’s a lot to build on. It’s a process, and as we continue to take steps with our program, the bar has been set. We’re looking forward to what the future will bring.”

In the 2020 version of the rankings, Smith was placed above Maryland’s Mike Locksley, who was the Illini’s offensive coordinator from 2005-08 under Ron Zook, and Rutgers’ Greg Schiano, who was hired for a second term with the school this past winter. The Big Ten’s strength on the sidelines was indicated by having 10 coaches ranked in TSN’s top 50 overall rankings in the overall rankings. Ohio State second-year head coach Ryan Day was rated as the Big Ten’s highest ranked head coach and placed seventh in the nation. Penn State’s James Franklin, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst was placed in the nation’s top 15.

Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith speaks during the Big Ten Football Media Days event at Hilton Chicago.
Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith speaks during the Big Ten Football Media Days event at Hilton Chicago.Jim Young/USA TODAY Sports

In mid-April both Caesars and DraftKings set the over/under win total mark for the 2020 Illini football season at five, meaning you’d have to bet the over (-115) if you believe Illinois will get to the 6-6 mark needed to qualify for bowl eligibility. DraftKings has set odds at Illinois going under the five-win mark in 2020 (-137) more likely than over five wins (+110).

The last time Illinois played in back-to-back bowl games was winning the 2010 Texas Bowl over Baylor, which was quarterbacked by future Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffith III, and the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl over UCLA. Illinois fired Ron Zook before they played in the 2011 bowl game against UCLA and so the last time the Illini played in bowl games in consecutive seasons with the same head coach was 1991 and 1992 with Lou Tepper on the sidelines.