Wes Lunt

AP Photo/Hannah Foslien

Illinois QB Wes Lunt ready to dig in with Lovie Smith and Garrick McGee

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Wes Lunt came to Illinois in hopes of finding some stability in his college career. After transferring from Oklahoma State following his freshman season, Lunt expected to find a footing in 2014 after sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer rules, but injuries got in the way in 2014 and a late and sudden coaching change at Illinois just days prior to kicking off the new season led to a weird season with the Illini last fall. Keeping with that trend, Illinois shook things up very late on the offseason calendar with a surprise coaching change to remove Bill Cubit and welcome in Lovie Smith and a new coaching staff. Lunt was as shocked as any with the recent changes, but appears to be ready to roll with Smith and new offensive coordinator Garrick McGee.

“It was just really frustrating because you build relationships, and both the Cubits, Ryan and Bill, have been really good to me,” Lunt said in an interview with Josh Moyer of ESPN.com. “I planned on going out with them, so that’s probably why it was so frustrating because it was change. But Coach Lovie Smith and Josh Whitman had a plan they executed really fast, which definitely eased a lot of that frustration.

“It was an up-and-down roller-coaster ride, but now we’re on an even, flat line and ready to go. It’s been as smooth a transition as it can be in the short amount of time it’s been.”

Lunt passed for 2,761 yards and 14 touchdowns last season for the Illini, with six interceptions along the way. Entering his final season of eligibility, Lunt hopes the new coaching staff will be able to help him achieve his full potential and help the rebuilding process for the program. He has already seemingly developed a solid relationship with McGee, who was quick to call the quarterback once he was hired by Illinois.

“He was very open on just about everything that could be this year,” Lunt said to ESPN.com. “That’s what really put me at ease. That’s what got me excited for spring ball and this season.”

Michigan St, Baylor, Boise St highlight the Friday night menu

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You know, college football on Thursday night was so much fun. We should do it all again tonight. Sound good? I knew I liked you.

Tonight’s Friday night line-up sees three teams that played in a New Years Six bowl in action tonight, and two of them are on the road. No. 4 Baylor will open the 2015 campaign in Dallas against SMU. The defending co-Big 12 champs will look to make a good first impression against the Mustangs, but will be without defensive lineman Shawn Oakman and defensive back Orion Stewart. Both players have been suspended for one game for a violation of team rules. This should be of little concern for the Bears, who should have more than enough offense to show off against a team it blanked last season (45-0).

At the same time Baylor is kicking off against SMU, the team it faced (and lost to) in the Cotton Bowl last season will be hoping to avoid an upset in Kalamazoo. No. 5 Michigan State is playing on the road against Western Michigan, a program seemingly trending upward in the MAC under the leadership of P.J. Fleck. Mark Dantonio‘s Spartans are once again a Big Ten contender with playoff aspirations, but now move forward without defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi calling the shots on defense. Michigan State should still be a defensive force for most programs this season, and having a steady quarterback like Connor Cook should bode well for Michigan State tonight and throughout the season.

The last New Years Six bowl participant on the schedule for tonight is good old Boise State. Once again the favorite for the Group of Five big bowl invitation, the Broncos look to get off to a good start with a victory over a Pac-12 program, Washington. The Huskies bring some youth and inexperience to the blue turf this evening, but they just so happen to be coached by a guy who knows all about this environment, Chris Petersen. Petersen returns to the place that made him a household name in the college football ranks, but he may not have the roster ready to grab victory from the Broncos. Boise State could very well go undefeated this season, especially if Thursday night’s showing by Utah State is an indication for what to expect from them this year, and having a win over a power conference opponent will be key down the line.

Illinois Goes Without Beckman

The Bill Cubit era gets underway as Illinois quickly moves past the Tim Beckman experience. Beckman was canned by the school last week, one week before the first game of the season against Kent State. Look for Illinois to get off to a good start on offense with Wes Lunt taking to the air early and often.

Hello Charlotte!

The Charlotte 49ers play their first FBS football game tonight, and they may even grab their first FBS win in school history. The 49ers are on the road taking on Georgia State. The Panthers have a long way to go but should still have an advantage against the upstart program at Charlotte.

FCS Upset Alert?

Weather got in the way of Stony Brook’s attempt to top Toledo. Southern Utah let one slip away against Utah State, and UConn avoided a loss at home to Villanova. Will we see an FCS program take down an FBS squad tonight? We could, and Fordham has a chance. The Rams take on Army, which should look to run the football and wear down the FCS program on the rise. Fordham is two years removed from taking down Temple, and they could do it again tonight.

Syracuse is hosting Rhode Island, which could get interesting if the Orange can’t create some separation in the first half.

CFT 2015 Preseason Preview: Big Ten Predictions

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As the 2015 season draws near, we peek into our crystal ball and guess project how each of the five major conferences will play out. Today, we will be examining the home of the defending national champion, the Big Ten. 

And while we’re at it, check out some of our other Power Five conference predictions HERE (ACC) and HERE (Big 12) as the CFT team continues to take its month-long glimpse of the upcoming season.

BIG TEN EAST

1. Ohio State (14-1 in 2014; beat Oregon in College Football Playoff title game)
For the forseeable future, you can pencil in Urban Meyer‘s Buckeyes as the class of the both the division and conference, as well as an annual contender for a playoff spot thanks to the one-two combination of the coaching staff and its recruiting prowess.  Last year, Meyer thought his Buckeyes were a year away from contention… and all they did was run through Wisconsin, No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Oregon in the postseason to claim the inaugural CFP championship.  What can OSU do for an encore?  Given the returning talent, they could very well be the eighth team since the Poll Era began (1936) to go back-to-back — provided they can get past, among others, the very stout, tremendously talented and extremely motivated team directly below this blurb.

2. Michigan State (11-2; beat Baylor in Cotton Bowl)
The Spartans have several positives going for them entering the 2015 season, from one of the best offensive and defensive lines in the conference to one of the best quarterbacks in the entire country in senior Connor Cook to one of the most underrated head coaches in Mark Dantonio.  There’s every reason to think that the Spartans, ranked fifth in the preseason, will remain in that neighborhood for a sizable chunk of the season.  Losing defensive mastermind Pat Narduzzi, now the head coach at Pittsburgh, could negatively impact the season, as could the schedule: three of MSU’s toughest games are on the road (Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan) while they also play host to a Top Ten in Week 2 in Oregon.

3. Michigan (5-7)
Yes, I’m drinking the Jim Harbaugh-flavored Kool-Aid already, and there are two good reasons as to why.  One, and look no further than what he did at Stanford, he is one of the best coaches at any level of football.  In the five years prior to his arrival on The Farm, the Cardinal won just 16 games; in Harbaugh’s four years heading the program, and taking over a one-win squad, the win total jumped to 29.  Secondly, he and his staff aren’t exactly coming into the kitchen with a bare cupboard.  In 2013 and 2012, UM’s recruiting classes were ranked fifth and seventh nationally and second in the Big Ten, respectively, according to Rivals.com. Even in 2014, amidst much speculation that Brady Hoke was as good as done, he still pulled in a class that ranked 31st in the country and fourth in the conference.  The talent is there, the coaching there, so there’s no reason to think that an immediate improvement won’t be there as well.

4. Penn State (7-6; beat Boston College in Pinstripe Bowl)
The biggest thing the Nittany Lions have going for them this season, the thing that could have them too low in this East prediction?  Their schedule.  They will be heavily favored in all six games — three conference, three non-conference — before traveling to Ohio State in mid-October, plus the scheduling gods gave them Illinois and Northwestern as their cross-divisional games this season.  Should the defense, as expected, remain one of the best in the conference, and Christian Hackenberg can overcome any crisis of confidence caused by a subpar offensive line — he was sacked 44 times in 2014, a season in which he tossed more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (12) — the Nittany Lions could very well increase their win total from a year ago.

5. Maryland (7-6; lost to Stanford in Foster Farms Bowl)
Relatively speaking, and compared to much of Randy Edsall‘s first four seasons in College Park, the Terps got off to a rousing start in 2014, winning five of their first seven games.  They then limped home with a 2-4 finish, punctuated by a 24-point loss to Stanford in the Foster Farms Bowl.  Like it or not, The Terps could very well be back in rebuilding mode, what with just 10 returning starters on both sides of the ball and a schedule that includes road trips to West Virginia, Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State as well as a home game against West power Wisconsin.  Given that combination, getting back to a bowl game would serve as a huge plus for Edsall’s program.

6. Indiana (4-8)
It’s very simple for the Hoosiers: either win and make a bowl game, or the program will be looking for a new head coach following the upcoming season.  In four years thus far, the Kevin Wilson experiment has netted just 14 wins, with seven of those coming against Power Five teams and six against conference members.  For IU to get back to a bowl game for the first time since 2007 — and just the second time since 1993 — they’ll need to take advantage of a slate that includes five very winnable games; if they can squeeze out an upset along the way, they could very well go bowling — and save Wilson’s job in the process.

7. Rutgers (8-5; beat North Carolina in Quick Lane Bowl)
If this particular prediction were to ultimately come to fruition, Rutgers would be the next Big Ten school looking for a new head coach.  Normally a coach that went 8-5 in the program’s first season in a Power Five conference wouldn’t even be remotely close to the hot seat, but Kyle Flood‘s recent off-field issue will place even more pressure on the fourth-year coach to win and win bigger than last season’s surprise total.  That, though, could prove to be an impossible row to hoe.  Not only do the Scarlet Knights return just 10 starters, they also lost 28 lettermen with varied amounts of experience and playing time, further exposing a glaring lack of depth compared to just one season ago.  Adding to the potential 2015 angst is that, in addition to the East heavyweights, RU also drew West stalwarts Nebraska and Wisconsin.  In fact, it’s conceivable and not even remotely out of the question that the Scarlet Knights could go winless in conference play.

BIG TEN WEST

1. Nebraska (9-4; lost to USC in Holiday Bowl)
The first season post-Bo Pelini in Lincoln is expected to be a breath of fresh air both on and off the field.  Mike Riley is a big reason for that, although how quickly the Cornhuskers adapt to his style of offense will likely determine whether or not this first-year prediction of success is overly optimistic.  NU was on the cusp of grabbing a divisional talent last season before dropping back-to-back November games against Wisconsin and Minnesota.  This season, the ‘Huskers get the Badgers at home, although they’ll have to make a mid-October trip to the Gophers.  One other question mark?  Replacing a handful of playmakers on the defensive side of the ball.

2. Wisconsin (11-3; beat Auburn in Outback Bowl)
Whether it was Barry Alvarez or Bret Bielema or Gary Andersen, the Badgers merely locked and reloaded at running back, along the offensive line and on defense from year to year to year with great success.  Can they do the same under first-year head coach and former UW offensive coordinator Paul Chryst?  The Badgers should again have one of the best defenses in the conference as well as one of the top running games in college football, although, again, the team will likely struggle to make gains through the air.  If they flip the script on the latter, though, they could be one of the most dangerous teams in the country and very well make it back to yet another conference championship game.  Another plus?  They avoid both Ohio State and Michigan State in the regular season, although they do have to travel to both Lincoln and Minneapolis.

3. Minnesota (8-5; lost to Missouri in Citrus Bowl)
How close were the Gophers to an absolutely epic 2014 season?  They held a four-point third-quarter lead in the regular-season finale against Wisconsin in a game that, with a win, would’ve meant a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship.  They lost that lead, then proceeded to lose both their bowl game (by double digits to Mizzou) and 12 starters, including leading rusher David Cobb, leading receiver Maxx Williams and their two most productive players on the defensive side of the ball.  Perhaps the best news?  They get both Nebraska and Wisconsin at home.

4. Northwestern (5-7)
Call this slotting a hunch.  Or a significant reach.  One of the two.  After going bowling for five straight seasons from 2008-12, the Wildcats have back-to-back postseason-less years from which they’re attempting to bounce back.  Returning 14 starters is a good start to the rebound; the schedule makers didn’t do the Evanston bunch many favors, though, as they’ll tackle Stanford in the opener, Duke and Michigan on the road as well as a home date against Penn State — and that’s in addition to the divisional games against Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.  While it won’t be easy, look for the Wildcats to get back to at least six wins and into a bowl game.

5. Iowa (7-6; lost to Tennessee in Taxslayer Bowl)
From 2002 through 2009, the Hawkeyes averaged nearly nine wins per season; in the five years since, they’ve averaged less than seven, and finished fourth or worse in the Big Ten in four of those seasons.  Last year, they didn’t beat a single FBS program that ended the year with a winning record.  Entering his 17th season at the school, and despite the lack of recent success, Kirk Ferentz has the benefit of a very loyal athletic department — and a hefty buyout that, in essence, handcuffs said department.  The 2015 season should serve up more of the same style of play on the field: running game-centric offense, brutish defense and just hanging around in games long enough and often enough to qualify for another third-tier bowl game.  How long the fair-to-middlin’ results will continue to be acceptable to the Hawkeye faithful — and boosters — remains to be seen.

6. Illinois (6-7; lost to Louisiana Tech in Heart of Dallas Bowl)
A two-game winning streak at the end of last season put the Illini into a bowl game and saved Tim Beckman‘s job; his alleged treatment of players, though, forced the athletic department’s hand and resulted in Beckman being dismissed exactly one week before the season opener.  Enter offensive coordinator Bill Cubit as the interim coach, although, from a projection standpoint, not much should really change. The Illini actually returns 15 starters — that’s in the top third of the Big Ten — including a starting quarterback in Wes Lunt who has the talent to be productive and thrive in this offensive system if he can only stay healthy.  Looking at the schedule, though, four wins seem to be a reasonable projection while five wins appears to be the best to which the Illini can aspire.  Should they get to 6-8 wins?  There may be no need to conduct a coaching search after all.

7. Purdue (3-9)
Let’s just get straight to the point.  Darrell Hazell has won a mere four games in his first two seasons in West Lafayette, including one lone win in Big Ten play.  His non-conference schedule this season includes Virginia Tech and a road trip to defending Conference USA champion Marshall, while there’s a better-than-average chance he will go winless in conference play for the second time in three years.  If the 15 returning starters can improve enough, there’s a chance the Boilermakers could, akin to a fat man shimmying into a pair of skinny jeans, squeeze its way into a postseason bid, which is likely the only way this branch of the Jim Tressel coaching tree gets another season.

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREDICTION
Ohio State over Nebraska

CFT Previews: Your Dec. 26 Bowl Viewer’s Guide

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Taking a quick-hit look at the Dec. 26 bowl menu, which features two teams each from the ACC and Big Ten, the first time those two conferences have taken part in the 2014-15 postseason

WHO: Illinois (6-6) vs. Louisiana Tech (8-5)
WHAT: The 4th Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl
WHERE: The Cotton Bowl, Dallas, Tex.
WHEN: 1 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: Illinois saved its season — and likely head coach Tim Beckman‘s job — by winning its last two games to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011, the year prior to Beckman’s arrival.  Louisiana Tech is also playing in a bowl game for the first time since 2011, and the first time under second-year head coach Skip Holtz.  The first month of the season, though, it didn’t look like Tech would reach the postseason as the Bulldogs stumbled out of the gate at 2-3; they righted the listing ship over the last two months, however, as they closed out a 6-2 run to end the season with a Conference USA West division title and a spot in the league title game.  Those two losses to close out the season, incidentally, were by a total of six points — on the road in overtime against Old Dominion (30-27) and against Marshall (26-23) in the conference championship game.  One thing to note about the Illini: they went 4-3 with quarterback Wes Lunt starting and 2-3 when he didn’t start.  On the bowl depth chart, however, the quarterback position is listed as Reilly O’Toole or Lunt, in that order.  Another thing about the Illini, which doesn’t bode well for the Big Ten school: they were 109th in points allowed per game (33.9), while the Bulldogs were 13th in scoring offense (37.5 ppg).
THE LINE: Illinois, +6
THE PREDICTION: Louisiana Tech 41, Illinois 27

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WHO: Rutgers (7-5) vs. North Carolina (6-6)
WHAT: The inaugural Quick Lane Bowl
WHERE: Ford Field, Detroit, Mich.
WHEN: 4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: In games that Gary Nova has thrown fewer than two interceptions, Rutgers is 26-7 since 2011.  In games that Nova has thrown two or more interceptions, RU has gone 2-10, with the last of those wins coming in November of 2012.  North Carolina, meanwhile, was 49th in the country and fourth in the ACC with 12 picks during the regular season.  After jumping out to a 5-1 mark in their first season in the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights stumbled to the regular-season finish line with a 2-4 record, with all four of those losses coming by at least 18 points and three of them coming by 20-plus.  The bad news for RU?  They’re 92nd in the country in points allowed per game (30.9), while UNC is 36th in scoring offense (33.8 ppg).  The good news for RU?  UNC’s defense is even worse, finishing the regular season 119th in points allowed (38.9 ppg).  Even worse for the Tar Heels, they’re 105th in passing yards (263.5 ypg) and have given up 34 or more points in eight of their 12 games this season.  In other words, this has all the makings of a good old-fashioned postseason shootout, one that would bring back memories of the old BYU Holiday Bowl appearances from years gone by.
THE LINE: Rutgers, +3
THE PREDICTION: Rutgers 48, North Carolina 45

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WHO: North Carolina State (7-5) vs. UCF (9-3)
WHAT: The 7th Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl
WHERE: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.
WHEN: 8 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: If you find defensive football soothing to your palate, this bowl game has the potential to be extremely soothing, especially when it comes to the AAC representative.  UCF is ninth in the country in points per game allowed at 17.9, while North Carolina State is a middling T-68th (27 ppg).  In three of their last four games — all wins, incidentally –the Knights allowed a total of 14 points.  Neither offense figures to offer much resistance as NCSU finished the regular season 61st in scoring (29.8 ppg) and UCF finished 71st (28.2 ppg).  Since losing its first two games of the season to Penn State and Missouri, UCF reeled off wins in nine of their last 10 games.  NCSU, after winning its first four games, went 3-5 in the last two-thirds of the season, although they close out by winning three of four to become bowl-eligible for the first time under second-year head coach Dave Doeren.  UCF is currently riding a three-game bowl winning streak after losing the first three postseason games in the football program’s history, with each of those wins coming by double-digit margins.  The player to watch offensively is NCSU’s Jacoby Brissett, a dual-threat quarterback who posted nearly 3,000 yards of offense (2,344 passing, 498 rushing) and 25 touchdowns.  Arguably the most impressive part about the Florida transfer’s season is that he threw just five interceptions in 344 attempts, the third-fewest picks in the country, behind USC’s Cody Kessler (4, 413) and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota (2, 372), among the 62 quarterbacks who attempted at least 340 passes.  UCF, though, was tied for ninth in the country with 18 interceptions.
THE LINE: North Carolina State, +2
THE PREDICTION: UCF 20, North Carolina State 13

Wes Lunt expected to be back under center for Illini vs. Iowa

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As 4-5 Illinois looks to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011, the triggerman of the Illini’s once-potent offense is back.

In early October, Wes Lunt sustained a fractured fibula in his left leg and was expected to miss 4-6 weeks.  Coming up on the outside end of that prognosis, Lunt is indeed set to return as the former Oklahoma State quarterback, barring an unexpected development, will start in Saturday’s game against Iowa.

One group in particular will likely be excited over the return of Lunt.

“The guy’s got a really good arm and he’s really accurate,” offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “If I’m a wide receiver, I’m going to feel a little bit better.”

In Lunt’s five starts — he sat out the Sept. 27 Nebraska game with a different leg injury — the Illini have gone 3-2. In the four games he missed, they’re 1-3.

As noted by the football program in its notes package for the Iowa game, Lunt was on his way to a quite prolific season before being sidelined.

At the time of his injury, Lunt ranked in the top 20 in the nation in completions per game (25.4, 10th), passing yards per game (313.8, 14th), passing touchdowns (13,17th), passing yards (1,569, 18th), completion percentage (66.5, 20th) and passing efficiency (154.8, 20th), and was tied for fourth in FBS with 14 passing plays of 30+ yards.

Lunt also tossed 13 touchdown passes in his five games and just three interceptions in 191 attempts. His two replacements, Reilly O’Toole and Aaron Bailey, have thrown five touchdowns and seven interceptions in 130 attempts.

With Lunt, the Illini averaged 30.4 points per game.  Without him, it dipped to 21 ppg.