Big Ten season preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

No Big Ten program went through a more surprising offseason upheaval than Illinois.

The Fighting Illini shockingly changed head coaches in March, as new athletic director Josh Whitman wasted no time in making his first big move on the job. Out went Bill Cubit, who had been named head coach just months earlier. In came Lovie Smith, well known to Illinois fans as the former coach of the NFL's Chicago Bears (and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) but who had never been a college head coach.

So, it's been quite a change. Smith has engendered lots of hope and optimism in Champaign, though even he acknowledged that his program building will take time.

"We're not there yet," he said at Big Ten media days about competing for championships. "But in time we would like to be a part of that conversation."

What does 2016 have in store for the Illini? Here's the first of our Big Ten team previews this week.

2015 record: 5-7 (2-6 Big Ten regular season)

Key losses: RB Josh Ferguson, DE Jihad Ward, S Clayton Fejedelem, LB Mason Monheim, WR Geronimo Allison, CB V'Angelo Bentley, OL Ted Karras, LB T.J. Neal

Key returners: QB Wes Lunt, DE Dawuane Smoot, RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn, DT Chunky Clements, WR Desmond Cain, WR Malik Turner, S Taylor Barton, OT Austin Schmidt

Instant impact player: Thin and inexperienced at linebacker, which is the key position in Smith's defensive scheme, the Illini got a football godsend when Hardy Nickerson Jr. came in as a grad transfer this summer. Nickerson was a three-year starter and captain at Cal, where he had 112 tackles a year ago. He had a great reason to come to Illinois: His father is the team's defensive coordinator.

Key stat: 481. That's how many pass attempts Lunt attempted last year in Cubit's offense. That's an average of 40 pass attempts per game, and it was the most of any Big Ten quarterback in 2015. Illinois all but abandoned the running game at times last year after Ferguson got injured. Expect that number to go way down this year, as Smith and offensive coordinator Garrick McGee will look to establish the running game. Lunt has a big arm, but he had too much riding on his shoulders last year.

Upset special: Illinois has to watch out for the Week 3 visit from Western Michigan. It comes a week after the team's most anticipated nonconference game, against North Carolina, and before a bye week that precedes conference play. The Broncos won eight games last year and have an up-and-coming young coach in P.J. Fleck. They can score points in bunches, too.

Best-case scenario: Smith invigorates not just the fan base but this roster, especially on the defensive side. Led by a strong defensive line that includes future NFL players Smoot and Clements, the Illini field an aggressive, playmaking defense in the mold of some of Smith's top NFL clubs. The offensive line plays to its potential, Vaughn develops into a 1,000-yard back, and Lunt has his best year as a senior. Illinois stays healthy and pulls out several close games. A double-digit win against Northwestern caps a 7-5 season and gives Smith and his staff even more momentum in recruiting.

Worst-case scenario: Depth is extremely shaky here. A few ill-timed and ill-placed injuries -- especially along the offensive line, at linebacker or, gasp, at quarterback -- could really put the Illini in a bind. Smith was never known for having great offenses in the NFL, and Illinois sputters in a more conservative system. The defense has trouble grasping the scheme and gives up lots of big plays in the passing game. The season includes blowout losses to North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Michigan State as the team limps to a 3-9 mark. Illinois fans will be patient, but there remain questions as to whether Smith is suited to be a head coach in the college game.