Illinois has 15 wins in Lovie Smith's four seasons as head coach. Nonetheless, after a six-win 2019 season (and potentially seventh win vs. Cal in the Redbox Bowl), Smith thinks the Illini have caught Wisconsin in the Big Ten West.
"We finished off one decade with the program trending in the right direction,” Smith told the Chicago Sun-Times this week. “How do we see the next decade? There’s a different day here with Illinois football.”
Smith is right; Illinois is trending in the right direction. They won six games for the first time in five years, have increased their win total in each of the last three seasons, beat Wisconsin for the first time in 12 years, and won in East Lansing for just the second time in three decades. The program opened a new $80-million facility in August and landed three four-star recruits in their 2019 class.
Here's where Smith is wrong (and, frankly, delusional): When asked if they're still chasing Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and others in the Big Ten West, he said, “We’ve caught them."
"Now, it’s about us competing. We’re not running from what our record was the last decade. Illinois had been down a long period of time. But as far as catching teams in our division that have traditionally been very good, we feel like we’re there now. We plan on beating everyone and eventually being the champion of this league.”
Kudos to Smith for optimism. Beating everyone and winning the Big Ten Championship should be your goal.
However, Illinois hasn't "caught" Wisconsin, a program with 10 seasons of at least 10 wins in the last 15 seasons and multiple appearances in the Big Ten Championship. They haven't caught Iowa, nor have they caught Minnesota. They were better than Nebraska this season but are miles behind the Huskers in the West pecking order.