Illinois' unexpected rise under Lovie Smith is a great story, but it'll take more than that to win on Saturday

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Lovie Smith. Photo courtesy of Illinois Sports Information Department

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Time eventually runs out for every head coach that fails to bring success, even for a highly respected person such as Lovie Smith.

At some point, Smith had to at  least show signs that he could lead a turnaround as the Illinois head coach, or he would be terminated.

A college head coach only gets a certain amount time to have success, but the amount of time depends on each circumstance.

Illinois, for example, has been far more patient with Smith’s rebuild than Florida State and Arkansas were with the Willie Taggart and Chad Morris, both of whom were recently fired in just their second season as head coach.

Illinois officials are being rewarded for their patience as Smith, in his fourth season as head coach, has the Fighting Illini on a roll that few saw coming.

Illinois has won four games in a row heading into Saturday’s matchup with Iowa at Kinnick Stadium, and is already bowl eligible at 6-4 overall 4-3 in the Big Ten.

“From my vantage point, outside looking in, he went there with a plan four years ago and stuck with that plan,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Their administration believed in the plan, they've stayed the course and you're really starting to see it pay dividends for them right now.”

The resurgence has come just in time for Smith’s sake, considering Illinois had a dismal 9-27 record in his first three season as head coach, with one of the worst losses being a 63-0 beat-down against Iowa last season in Champaign, Ill.

“Right now, they're the hottest team on our side of the division or our side of the conference, playing with great momentum, four straight wins, and just playing really good football,” Kirk Ferentz said. “I think one of the first points we made to our football team was this is a totally new Illinois football team.

“Anything that we may remember from the past or seen on film from the past really you can kind of discard at this point because they're playing at a really different level right now. A lot of the same faces, but they're playing at a much higher level right now.”

The decision in 2016 to hire Smith raised some eyebrows because it truly was a case of Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman thinking outside the box a little bit.

Smith had been coaching in the NFL since 1996, but he had just been fired after only two seasons as the head coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when the Illinois job became available.

On March 7, 2016, Smith was named head coach for the University of Illinois, agreeing to a contract paying $21 million over six years.

In the 48 hours following the announcement of the Smith hire, the university sold over 2,000 new season tickets and more than 400 new student season tickets.

But the buzz quickly faded as the team struggled on the field.

Until now.

Illinois has won four consecutive Big Ten games for the first time since its 2001 Big Ten championship team finished the regular season with seven straight victories.

Illinois has also forced three turnovers per game during its current four-game winning streak, and has a plus 2.25 turnover margin (12-3) during that time.

Smith’s area expertise is defense and his current team has shown an uncanny ability to create turnovers, which is the ultimate game changer.

The ability to create turnovers were key to Illinois coming from behind to defeat both Michigan State and Wisconsin.

“Probably the two things that impress me the most quite frankly are the way they're winning,” Kirk Ferentz said. “Two of those four wins they won in the not only the second half but the fourth quarter, the Wisconsin game and the Michigan State game, so I think that shows you about the attitude of their football team, their belief in each other, their ability to remain competitive regardless of what it may look like.

“Then the other thing that really stands out, jumps out at you right away is their turnover/takeaway margin. They're right at the top of the league, and I think that really indicates the way they're playing, the way they're coached, and right on through.”

The 61-year old Smith has experienced incredible highs in coaching, including leading the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl as head coach in 2006.

But there have been plenty of lows, too, including at Illinois, where until this current rise, it looked as if the decision to hire Smith was a mistake.

Smith is widely respected throughout the coaching ranks with Kirk Ferentz among his many admirers.

“I think it all just starts, you go back when Coach Smith got hired over there,” Kirk Ferentz said. “Lovie is a tremendous football coach, tremendous human being, and a very accomplished coach. His resume speaks for itself and he's had success a lot of different places.”

But with all that being said, Kirk Ferentz wants nothing more right now than another victory over Illinois.

Iowa has won 10 of the last 11 games in the series, including the last five in a row at Kinnick Stadium.

Both teams are trying to improve on their bowl status, and a victory would be significant for both, but especially for Illinois.

Iowa needs to win out, including a bowl game, to achieve a ninth double-digit-win season in program history, while Illinois needs to win out to secure a season with at least nine wins for just the third time since 1990.

Iowa should prevail for several reasons, not the least of which is that Iowa has an edge in talent and depth.

Iowa is also playing at home, and on Senior Day where 19 seniors will be honored during an emotional ceremony just moments before kickoff.

Each of the 19 seniors will be introduced while running on to the field at Kinnick Stadium to meet with family near midfield.

I’ve thought about it a little bit, but I haven’t really reflected on it,” said Iowa senior quarterback Nate Stanley. “I think it’s definitely going to be extra emotional for my parents and for myself.

“It’s definitely going to be more emotional for me. And I can say based on past experiences, I know my mom is probably going to cry. My dad? I’m not sure about him. But it’ll definitely be more emotional.”

It’s silly to think that Saturday’s game will be a repeat of last season when Illinois offered hardly any resistance because Illinois is much better now compared to then.

But it’s easy to picture the better team winning at home.

Prediction: Iowa 34, Illinois 20

Iowa vs. illinois

When: 11:01 a.m., Saturday

Where: Kinnick Stadium

TV: Big Ten Network

Records/rankings. Illinois is 6-4 overall and 4-3 in the Big Ten and unranked. Iowa is 7-3, 4-3 and ranked 19th in the Associated Press poll.