It was the Illini's most winnable game of the season. Had they not taken a late lead and held on, a winless season would've been a very real possibility for Lovie Smith's team.
And that would've been the end of Lovie Smith.
[divider]WATCH: Illini's Win Probably Shouldn't Have Counted[divider]
Illinois was 2-for-10 on third downs and had 216 total yards, 145 passing yards (10-for-19), 71 rushing yards (2.4 yards per carry) and had the ball for fewer than 24 minutes. They blew a nine-point halftime lead and needed a Mike Epstein one-yard touchdown run with two minutes left and blocked field goal in the final seconds to avoid the season-opening loss.
"Nothing like winning a football game," Smith declared after the ugly victory.
It could be the only time Smith has that feeling in 2017. After winning three games last year — his first as head coach — Smith is 1-0 but is facing a tricky remaining non-conference schedule (vs. Western Kentucky and at South Florida) before embarking on a nine-game Big Ten slate.
If they go 1-11, will Smith be fired? If so, here are five guys that Illinois could be interested in.
Current Position: Offensive Coordinator – Rutgers
This makes too much sense.
Two years after resigning his post at Minnesota because of health concerns, Kill is an offensive coordinator for the first time since the 1993 at Pittsburg State. It's unclear if the 56-year-old wishes to be a head coach again, though given his recent history, any such declaration would carry zero weight.
Current Position: Defensive Coordinator – Nebraska
Bob Diaco took a chance three years ago by leaving his comfy defensive coordinator job at Notre Dame to become head coach at UConn. The former Iowa linebacker went 6-7 in 2015 — his second season — but 3-9 last year, leading to his dismissal.
Mike Riley immediately scooped him up. The 42-year-old has a résumé longer than some 60-year-olds and will get another shot. But would he want another very difficult job or wait a few years for something more appealing?
Current Position: Offensive Coordinator – LSU
Matt Canada's is LSU's first-year offensive coordinator. An Indiana alum, he rocketed up the coaching ranks at Northern Illinois (1998-2003) to become a 35-year-old offensive coordinator at his alma mater in 2007.
Similarly to Diaco, would the up-and-coming Canada want to risk his head coaching shot at one of the worst Power Five programs in America?
Current Position: N/A
Les Miles has made it very clear he wants to return to the sidelines.
"I want to coach football," Miles said in April. "That's pretty simple. I want an opportunity at a place that can win, a place where they really want to invest in the players. If they do that, I'm good."
Illinois qualifying as "a place that can win" is debatable, and it's likely the 63-year-old former LSU coach would have much better offers. Still, a lower-risk, lower-pressure job may be appealing.
Current Position: N/A
You're kidding yourself if you think Chip Kelly will hang 'em up and stay in TV for the next 10-plus year. Clearly he is looking for something that he hasn't found yet.
After one and a half failed failed NFL attempts (the 49ers didn't give him any real chance) it's unlikely another team will call. He could opt for a coordinator gig or return to college. It'd be another NFL hire for Illinois but this one at least makes sense.