CHAMPAIGN — After nine wins in three seasons, it's understandable that college football pundits have low expectations for the Illinois Fighting Illini under Lovie Smith.
After all, it is a team that gave up 63 points on three different occasions and they gave up 46 or more in six of their eight defeats last year.
"Our offense did a lot of good things last year to keep us in a lot of football games,'' said Smith as Illinois did average 26.0 points and 243.0 rushing yards per game. "We didn't show up defensively.
"That is what we plan to do this year.''
Not only does Smith plan significant changes on the defense side of the football, he believes this year's Fighting Illini team will compete and contend.
"Some of our games last year, we weren't in. But the ones that we were, their were signs last year of what we can do,'' Smith said. "The experience of being that football team, on the road against Rutgers and at home against Minnesota. We are going to be that team more often than not. And that should be good enough.
"As long as you have a chance, you can live with the results.''
And it's not just what the coach is saying.
"This has to be the year,'' said sophomore lineman Kendrick Green, a former standout at Peoria High. "We have to go this year.
"We are not too far off from the top teams in the Big Ten West.''
But, what about those experts that have Illinois finishing last in the Big Ten's West Division.
"We are farther along. We are a better football team,'' said Smith. "When you are supposed to win it all — I'm sure that is a motivating factor.
"When you are where we are — no one has picked us to do anything — that's a good position to be in also.''
Illinois returns 18 starters from last year's 4-8 squad, including running back Reggie Corbin, who rushed for 1,085 yards and nine scores a year ago, and linebacker Jake Hansen, who tied for the team high with 95 tackles.
Corbin, who had 601 rushing yards in his first two seasons with Illinois, credited offensive coordinator Rod Smith for his big jump.
"It was being a part of an explosive offense, coach (Rod) Smith put me in the best position to succeed,'' said Corbin, who says there are no words to describe why he feels so confident about this season. "When you know, you know and when you feel it, you feel it. I feel the pot is boiling.
"We've been close, but we just didn't have all the pieces. We have found those missing pieces.''
And Illinois found those replacement pieces with five transfers, including quarterback Brandon Peters from Michigan, who has passed for 680 yards and four touchdowns in his brief career with the Wolverines.
"Brandon is a lot better athlete than he has been given credit for,'' said Smith.
The other transfers into the Illinois program that will be eligible this season are wide receivers Trevon Sidney and Josh Imatorbhebe from USC, defensive lineman Oluwole Betiku, also from USC, and offensive lineman Richie Petibone from Alabama.
"The graduate transfer route has been good to us,'' Smith said. "We have added five players from good programs that are good football players.''
Tight end Luke Ford, a transfer from Georgia, was denied a transfer waiver. The former standout from Carterville will have three years of eligibility remaining next year.
Illinois will begin the 2019 season on Saturday, Aug. 30 at home against the Akron Zips. Kickoff at Memorial Stadium is set for 11 a.m.