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Illinois preview: Will QB A.J. Bush help cool Lovie Smith’s so-called hot seat?

Bush, a tall, rangy lefty, will be a first-time starter as a fifth-year graduate transfer. (Stephen Haas/The News-Gazette via AP)

It’s everywhere you look. It’s dark, gloomy and foreboding. Actually, it’s hot, uncomfortable and a real pain in the . . .

Illinois coach Lovie Smith is on the hot seat.

That’s what the national experts are saying as they compile their ‘‘hot seat’’ lists, anyway. And it’s not only being written in the media. An email that hit our inbox Monday came from a sports betting site that gave Smith 5-1 odds of being the first coach fired this season. Only Kansas’ David Beaty, at 4-1, had more reason to sweat. (Maryland’s D.J. Durkin, who is on administrative leave, was not included.)

But what’s the real deal? Put it this way: Smith will be back — assuming he wants to be back — in 2019 pretty much no matter how this season goes.

And it probably won’t go particularly well. The Illini are 5-19 overall and 2-16 in Big Ten play in two seasons under the former longtime Bears coach. And Illinois once again will be one of the youngest teams in the country on both sides of the ball as Smith remains in total rebuild mode.

Hot seat or not, though, no excuses will cut it if the Illini don’t at least look the part of an improving team. In 2017, they were last in the conference in points scored and third from the bottom in points allowed. So it can’t get any worse.


1. Quarterback stability

A.J. Bush has played at Nebraska and Virginia Tech, with a junior-college stop in between. What he hasn’t done is prove he can lead an offense. The fifth-year graduate transfer has one season left to change that. The starting job is his, it was announced Monday.


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‘‘He made plays through camp,’’ offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. ‘‘He was probably the most consistent in camp, made the most big plays, the least amount of mistakes. All the things we ask our quarterback to do, he did.’’

Bush has imposing size — 6-4, 225 — and is a lefty. He’ll be an interesting guy to watch.

2. Go get it

Mike Dudek (Neuqua Valley) and Ricky Smalling (Brother Rice) have a chance to put up some real numbers. As abjectly awful as the Illini passing game has been the last couple of seasons, it would be a game-changing development.

Just close your eyes and imagine it: a spinning football, thrown downfield in the direction of the correct player, and he actually makes the catch. Are we the only ones who just got chills?

3. Hold the line

How will a small defensive front hold up? Junior Jamal Milan is a 300-pounder on the interior, but sophomores Bobby Roundtree, Jamal Woods and Isaiah Gay don’t bring much beef to the equation. The Illini have to get off the field once in a while.


Sept. 1 vs. Kent State: Win. This is a walk in the park, the perfect first opponent for a new quarterback.

Sept. 8 vs. Western Illinois: Win. Then again, the Illini started 2-0 last season and lost out from there.

Sept. 15 vs. South Florida (Soldier Field): Win. Lovie’s first big upset victory — and what a place for it to happen.

Sept. 21 vs. Penn State: Loss. A cold dose of reality.

Oct. 6 at Rutgers: Win. Illini ‘‘D’’ takes advantage of a true freshman at quarterback.

Oct. 13 vs. Purdue: Loss. No longer can it be said that the Boilers are the most beatable opponent on the conference schedule.

Oct. 20 at Wisconsin: Loss. Did anyone get the plate number on that truck?

Oct. 27 at Maryland: Loss. Bowl hopes begin to slip away.

Nov. 3 vs. Minnesota: Win. Or do they?

Nov. 10 at Nebraska: Loss. Bush returning to where he began his career is an interesting story, though it was a few Huskers coaches ago.

Nov. 17 vs. Iowa: Loss. The Hawkeyes are too physical for such a young team to handle.

Nov. 24 at Northwestern: Loss. No dice. No bowl. But a 5-7 finish is better than most anticipated.