COLUMN: It’s Time for Awkward, Uncomfortable Questions By Illini's Lovie Smith & His Bosses

With its sixth straight loss and third straight loss to start what was an exciting 2020 season, everybody in charge of Illinois football needs to start asking uncomfortable questions.
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It’s time.

Quite honestly, it may just be past time but as the cliched saying goes, better late than never.

Following an embarrassing third straight loss in 2020 by a lopsided score of 41-14, the program’s sixth straight defeat and the second time in three weeks that Illinois head coach Lovie Smith has started a post-game media conference with “we’re better than this”, questions need to be asked.

"I thought they dominated us on both sides, offensive and defensive," Smith said. "Couldn’t do anything offensively. Not much happened, terrible performance, when you play like that, you can’t wait to get to the next game. Last week we lost but we didn’t lose like this. We are better than this.”

And they’re the kind of questions that usually make people unhappy, uncomfortable, physically squirm and may end with a polite question of “hey, can we please change the subject?”.

Let’s start with the obvious:

Question 1) Is Illinois the worst program in the Big Ten Conference?

Yes. And that answer will be verified Sunday when the early gambling lines come out Rutgers, the Big Ten’s tackling dummy for the last half decade, is favored to win in their matchup against Illinois this coming weekend.

Illinois (0-3), which has been behind by a combined 94-24 in the first three quarters of games this season, is not able to point at anything and claim that is a football task they do at an acceptable level.

Question 2) Does this Illinois team do anything respectable?

Until Saturday’s 41-14 debacle to the league’s annoying villain P.J. Fleck (who Illini fans don’t need to be told was born in that state of Illinois), Smith’s defense could say it was just the big plays in the pass game that was constantly shooting down their chances at a respectable defense. Following 325 yards on the ground and five walk-in touchdowns by the Gophers, Illinois’s defense under Smith is vulnerable against the pass and run.

The Illinois offense was supposed to have all these weapons in the pass game and veterans on the offensive line that wouldn’t make silly mental mistakes. Even allowing for the excuse the Illini are now down to its fourth-string quarterback, Illinois has passed for a combined 193 yards against Wisconsin and Minnesota. Unfortunately, coronavirus hasn’t allowed Wisconsin to play another football game but we do know the Gophers defense had allowed an average of 309.5 yards a game through the air, good for 106th of 115 college football programs. For a defense forced to play a handful of true freshmen on the defensive line and without its coordinator due to COVID-19, all is right with the world for Minnesota following 60 minutes of football in Champaign.

Now we can move on to the questions that come with specifically evaluating leadership...

Question 3) Does this Illinois team compete hard?

Under Smith, effort has likely never been the culprit of this program’s weekly downfall. Now in year five and game 52 of his tenure, Smith said Saturday he’ll be watching film searching for players in orange and blue not giving full effort. To summarize, the head coach may now think the answer to this question is not all the time.

"Normally when you have a game like that, you don't have to watch the video," Smith said. "One of the things I'm going to really evaluate is the effort. That's something we have to clean up." 

Question 4) Does this team have the player leadership to dig themselves out of the program’s seventh three-game losing streak under Lovie Smith?

Illinois co-captain and linebacker Jake Hansen got noticeably uncomfortable with a question if a players-only meeting and calling out fellow teammates was necessary to reverse this disturbing trend of on-field failure.

“We'll see. We'll figure out. I can't really comment on that," Hansen said after saying "they were more prepared to play and they were definitely more physical and it was obvious." 

Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith looks on from the sideline during the first half against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Memorial Stadium. Minnesota won Saturday 41-14.

Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith looks on from the sideline during the first half against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Memorial Stadium. Minnesota won Saturday 41-14.

Finally, the question that is obviously on the mind of everybody associated (either directly or indirectly) with Illini football...

Question 5) Can this program get to where it should and needs to be under Lovie Smith?

Everybody from university chancellor Robert Jones, athletics director Josh Whitman, the head football coach and any booster with hope (and may God bless you if you’re out there) has to begin the process of evaluating that question. 

Like it or not, and judging by Illini fans on social media they don't like this fact, but those people are the only two people placed with the responsibility of answering that question and moving toward action based off that answer. 

In the midst of a worldwide virus pandemic where the athletics department is likely to be a $20-30 million hole, a coaching move may not be responsible. However, knowing the answer to this now BEFORE you get to the point of a coaching change being financially viable may be the responsible thing those with power stroke at the U of I may be the most responsible move. Because those people in charge may have one final question for themselves. 

Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman looks on during the fourth quarter of the game against Michigan at Memorial Stadium on Oct. 12, 2019.

Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman looks on during the fourth quarter of the game against Michigan at Memorial Stadium on Oct. 12, 2019.

Question 5) After practically every game Lovie Smith keeps saying, 'we're better than that' but what if we're not?

After Saturday's newest embarrassment, that question can't go unanswered. 

It's time.