CAMPUS CHECK IN: Fear The Beard? Lovie Smith embraces new look for Year 3 at Illinois

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith.

CHAMPAIGN – People started to see the change in Spring Practice, but it wasn’t just something for the winter.

He showed up with it at Big Ten Media Days and then continued to sport it during training camp in Champaign.

Fear the Beard? Maybe that’s what Lovie Smith is thinking as he leads Illinois onto the field for year three of a continued rebuild of the program.

Now it’s starting to catch on.

At the Illini’s season opener on Saturday against Kent State, the first 5,000 people will be given gray “Lovie Beards” to sport in the stands in honor of their coach.

It’s some positive vibes for a program that’s endured two years of heavy retooling under Smith, who took over a program in need of an overhaul. Last year produced just two wins, with both coming in the first two weeks of the season. That was followed by a difficult, winless Big Ten season in which Illinois finished last in the conference.

There are still plenty of variables for the Illini as the enter the 2018 season, doing so with a group of young players who got a lot of experience as true freshman in 2017 along with a new offensive coordinator in Rod Smith.

But two things are set in stone: AJ Bush is the starting quarterback, and the beard’s going to stick around for a while.

“On some things for our football team, it’s kind of obvious. Like it’s obvious right now that I have a beard. It’s kind of obvious that AJ is our guy,” said Smith, who hopes for a few more stable things to grow in the program over the coming months.

NORTHWESTERN: Even After Ten Wins?

EVANSTON – Yes, Purdue was much improved in 2017, but still they lost to Pat Fitzgerald’s team.

In fact the Boilermakers haven’t beaten Northwestern since the 2010 season. Yet as the teams enter their opening night match-up Thursday at Ross Ade Stadium, it’s not the Wildcats who are favored.

Instead it’s Purdue who is a one-point favorite over Fitzgerald’s team, even as the Wildcats come off a season where they won ten games and likely return starting quarterback Clayton Thorson. This also comes on the heels of Northwestern getting only minor consideration in the preseason rankings.

Having build his program into a legitimate contender over the past decade, does Fitzgerald use this as motivation for his Wildcats? Not really.

“Not necessarily playing it up,” said Fitzgerald of the lack of hype for the team in the preseason. “We’re never going to be sexy, I would just put it to you that way, in the preseason. I’d rather go out and earn it anyways. I’d rather have those things earned in the back end then talked about in the front end.”

NOTRE DAME: And The Quarterback Is….

SOUTH BEND – Having multiple quarterbacks seeing time is not something new at Notre Dame.

Even the year which Notre Dame advanced to the BCS National Championship game in 2012, the season began with two sharing the snaps under center.

That’s the case again for Brian Kelly in 2018 as both Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book. They’ve been competing for the spot ever since they shared time in the Citrus Bowl win over LSU on January first, and both may see the field when the Irish open up against 14th-ranked Michigan on Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium.

But Kelly says that one man will be under center to start things off against the Wolverines.

So Brandon’s our starter. We’re going to go into the game that he needs to win the game for us. We’ll put a game plan together for Brandon Wimbush to win the game for us. If there’s any need, we feel great about Ian Book as our number two,” said Kelly of the quarterback situation on Saturday.

Last season Wimbush threw for 1,870 yards with 16 touchdowns compared to six interceptions while Book threw for 456 yards with four touchdowns compared to four interceptions.

NORTHERN ILLINOIS: No Easy Starts

DEKALB – As always, there are some high hopes for Rod Carey’s Huskies as another season begins.

Once again, Northern Illinois is considered a favorite in the MAC West. They also figure to be in the running for a bowl game, something they’ve qualified for nine of the last ten seasons.

But they’re going to have to earn it the first four weeks of the season as they face quite a difficult stretch to open things up. The opener is this Saturday at Iowa which is then followed by a home game with Utah in DeKalb then the conference opener with Central Michigan at Huskie Stadium.

Then comes a September 22nd trip to Florida State to end a difficult first part of the season.