CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The problem that Bret Bielema faces ahead of the 2023 season isn’t exactly a bad one, considering the struggles Illinois football has dealt with in the past.
Thanks to an 8-5 season in 2022 that featured a number of players finding their way onto the radar of college football fans and pundits, there are positive expectations for the Illini heading into the 2023 campaign.
The season opens up Saturday night at Memorial Stadium when Illinois hosts reigning Mid-American Conference champion Toledo at 6:30 p.m. After knocking on the door of a Big Ten West title a season ago, there is hope from some they might be able to pull off that program first this season.
That’s quite a change from Bielema’s first two seasons, presenting a common challenge for the veteran college coach: How to put positive preseason hype in perspective.
“I’m balancing that all the time, but the part that we, as coaches, have to be aware of now is just the immediate access our players have to people telling them how good they are,” said Bielema at his weekly news conference on Monday.
So where does that task begin for Bielema? He’s been around high expectations before, especially at Wisconsin where his Badgers’ teams won three Big Ten titles and appeared in seven bowl games.
“For me as the head coach, you’ve got to be ahead of where you’re at. I kind of had a steady crescendo,” Bielema said. “I knew a lot of our guys were up for national awards. I know that we received votes to be ranked. We didn’t get ranked, but we beat teams that were ranked, so I made note of all that.”
An example, according to Bielema, was when he found out that defensive lineman Johnny Newton was going to be on a Heisman Trophy podcast. He’s one of two preseason All-Americans along with fellow defensive tackle Keith Randolph Jr.
There are a few other players who’ve been mentioned for preseason awards as well, which are all part of the chatter around the team that has 10 starters returning.
“I keep calling them wish lists, not watch lists,” Bielema said. “They wish you to be good. I wish you to be good. You wish yourself to be good, but really what you do is going to determine how well you get rewarded. I think we have a hungry football team. I think we have a group of guys that really want to work. I think they understand the ability to be humble is a really good trait. We have to keep the edge that we’re in every game.
“We have to have not one chip on our shoulder but two, and that’s how we have to play.”
Doing so with some much-appreciated positive football momentum in Champaign.