Brett Bilima is suddenly 24th in Illinois and looks like a contender at Big Ten West in his second year since replacing Luffy Smith as Illini coach.
They are ranked for the first time since 2011. They beat Iowa and Wisconsin in the same season for the first time since 1989, rolling behind a stingy defense and a productive attack.
Bielema is no stranger to success in the Big Ten. He led Wisconsin to three consecutive Conference titles and Rose Bowls before leaving for seemingly greener pastures in Arkansas in the Southeast Conference.
The 52-year-old has changed since his days as a great coach at Madison. Perhaps wiser after spending five years and going from 29 to 34 years with the Razorbacks before he was fired in 2017.
“I think I get all the time from my experience,” he said earlier this week.
Champaign could see the best version of Bielema. Early results suggest he might take Illini (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten) from the Big Ten later on to a formidable contender in the wide open Western Division.
“I think our men are very hungry,” Belima said. “It’s fun being around. I don’t know if I enjoyed training either before the match, during the match or after the match as much as I (with) this group.”
He and rookie defensive coordinator Ryan Walters wasted no time in turning an occasional leaky defense under Smith into a unit that would allow FBS to best 3.72 yards per game and lowest points per game (8).
A once tepid offense turned into a production unit behind FBS lead racer Chase Brown (879 yards) and transferred quarterback Tommy DeVito.
When DeVito is healthy, he is a good decision maker as well as possessing a talented and precise arm. An ankle injury he sustained in the 9-6 win over Iowa last week could limit this team, but the running game may continue to dominate after Brown put in 146 yards in front of an Iowa solid front.
“Sometimes you have to win things in ways you don’t plan,” Belima said.
Indeed, Illini is a win away from pot eligibility. This feat is particularly impressive considering that Smith took four years to reach a bowl and that Illinois made only six bowls in this millennium.
Ron Zuk got the Illini start 6-0 in 2011, the program’s last seven-win season, before falling out of the rankings with a six-game losing streak and being ejected before beating UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
But this start seems sustainable.
“When that came (arrangement #24), I just sat there for a moment and sort of got to grips with it and thought about it, and I thought it was a good thing,” Belema said. “I grew up and played coach (Hayden) Fry (in Iowa). Coach Fry used to always say, ‘Shrek, if you’ve done that, you’re not bragging.'”
The program’s upward mobility in the Big Ten West since Bielema’s arrival — especially after Smith went 4-26 against the division — comes at a time when programs like Wisconsin and Iowa are stagnant or in decline.
Whether Bielema can now turn improvement on the ground into wins in the recruitment path will also be pivotal.
“Winning affects everything,” Belima said. “It affects your program, it affects your recruitment, it affects your roster retention.”
Smith hasn’t left the closet naked, but plenty of talent left is in her final year of eligibility or may leave for the NFL this spring.
“That’s why I want to ride this wave as long as possible and as high as possible, because it will definitely help us in the future.”
He credits his players, most of whom are Smith’s recruits who could have been off after either of the last two seasons. Offensive Alex Palczewski and Safety Kendall Smith, both year six players, are contributors who were convinced to see him rather than leave.
“Like last year, I was worried that the men might come to the rescue,” Belima said. “They had confidence and belief in us.”