Illinois vs. Murray State prediction and game preview for the opening contest of the 2016 season. Find out who’s projected to win the matchup between the Illini and the Racers.
Illinois vs Murray State Game Preview
When: Saturday, Sept. 3 – 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.
Matchup to Watch
Lovie Smith vs. The college game
Illinois’ Tim Beckman experiment was a disaster, ending with the alleged mistreatment of players. The hiring of Smith, still beloved by some in the state after his tenure coaching the Chicago Bears, was met with plenty of praise. He’s one of six coaches – including Jim Harbaugh and Mike Riley from the Big Ten – who once led NFL teams, and the Fighting Illini are hopeful that can be a major selling point for recruits dreaming of making it to the pros.
However, Smith hasn’t been in the college game since coaching Ohio State’s defensive backs in 1995. There might be an adjustment period, or the mild-mannered Smith could thrive away from the high-pressure NFL and settle comfortably knowing he’ll be given some time to turn around the Ilini.
Edge on Offense
Smith hired Garrick McGee to run an offense that returns pocket-passing Wes Lunt, who will rely mostly on sophomore receiver Desmond Cain with the departures of Geronimo Allison and Mikey Dudek. Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Josh Ferguson split the majority of carries in the backfield last season, but Vaughn will be the go-to guy with Ferguson graduating.
KD Humphries is considered one of the top quarterbacks in the FCS after throwing for 3,778 yards and 22 touchdowns last year for Murray State, which ranked second in the Ohio Valley Conference in total offense.
Edge on Defense
This is where Smith is expected to shine along new defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson. They get back Dawuane Smoot, who had eight of Illinois’ 19 sacks last season, and could thrive in the 4-3 defense that Smith loves to institute.
The Racers had the second-worst unit in FCS last year, allowing an average of 497.1 yards per game.
Edge on Special Teams
Illinois loses its placekicker, kickoff specialist and both return men. That shouldn’t upset Smith considering the Illini weren’t very good at any of those positions last year.
Smith coached the Bears to the Super Bowl in 2006 and was in the process of turning around Tampa Bay before being let go. He has the credentials, but the college game is a different animal.
Mitch Stewart enters is third season as head coach of the Racers, and he also serves as the offensive coordinator. About that defense though …
Illinois vs. Murray State Prediction
The Illini open the Lovie Era with a 42-28 win.