National writers predicting ISU Redbirds as state's most likely playoff team

Prairie State Pigskin asked four national media members for predictions on the Illinois FCS schools' prospects for this season. In these experts' composite opinion, head coach Brock Spack's Illinois State Redbirds are likely the only state school you'll find in the postseason.

Here are the win-loss predictions and comments:

Jason Groomes, College Sports Madness

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Illinois State returns eight on each side of the ball. The defense was pretty good in 2018. Still, there's room for improvement. Might be tough in the Missouri Valley. But the Redbirds have as good of a chance to win the conference title with NDSU and SDSU having to replace all-time quarterbacks for their programs. Overall, they should start somewhere between #6 and #15 in the initial rankings. The non-conference schedule is built for success. And decent conference record should land a playoff spot. The right breaks could snare a conference title and national seed. PROJECTION: 7-5 to 10-2, playoffs.
Western Illinois lost half their starters from last year, including a starting quarterback of 3+ years. The defense lost impact players all over the place. If there was ever a team who looks the most questionable, it's probably the Leathernecks. The schedule is interesting. They have six home games, but the schedule is still tough. Anybody in the MVFC is going to have that issue. A team having to replace so much will be tasked even further.
PROJECTION: 3-9 to 5-7.
Southern Illinois fell completely short of expectations in 2018 and they were one of the sexy picks to break into fringe playoff company. 2-9 was not in those thoughts. A repeat though will leave head coach Nick Hill's seat plenty hot. The defense needs to improve and that's not a secret. They do return almost everyone, but the Salukis need to not surrender 40 points per game. The offense averaged 30 themselves. They might have to look to a transfer to head the offense, but they should still score points. In the MVFC, improvement doesn't necessarily mean wins. PROJECTION: 3-9 to 5-7.
Eastern Illinois looks like a total mystery offensively. They return multiple quarterbacks, but only two others on that side of the ball. Makes for a dicey situation early. The early schedule does them no favors either - they might go into Ohio Valley play 0-4. The Panthers bring back eight on defense, but that was a unit that gave up 40 points per game last year. Makes you wonder how much improvement can or will be made. Chances of a .500 record seem slim, even in the OVC. PROJECTION: 3-9 to 5-7.
Craig Haley, STATS FCS Senior Editor
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It feels like a step backward overall for the FCS schools in Illinois. I only see Illinois State being a playoff contender this season.

Illinois State – 8-4. There’s too much talent for the Redbirds not to live up to expectations – yeah, finally. It’s interesting that they play EIU, SIU and WIU all on the road.

Western Illinois – 4-8. With the likes of McGuire, Saunders, Swenson and Moon, the Leathernecks suffered too many key graduation losses. Still, it feels weird to pick WIU going 4-8.

Southern Illinois – 4-8. I was too high on the Salukis going into last season, so maybe I’m too low this time because Chinn, Knighton and Davis are strong. They have to prove the overall depth is stronger.

Eastern Illinois – 3-9. There’s some depth at quarterback, but man are they starting over on offense in Adam Cushing’s first season. The non-conference schedule appears to be too tough as the Panthers regroup.

Sam Herder, HERO Sports Analyst
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Illinois State: There’s no denying the Redbirds haven’t lived up to expectations lately. But 2019 should be the year they get over the hump. The returning talent and experience suggests this team can rise into the Top 3 of the MVFC standings and return to the postseason with a favorable nonconference schedule helping its playoff resume. Record prediction: 8-4
Southern Illinois: The offensive talent is there, but the problems are on the defensive side. Allowing 40.7 points a game just isn’t going to get it done, no matter how explosive your offense is. Until we see those defensive improvements on the field, it’s tough to predict the Salukis competing for a spot in the playoffs. The MVFC is just too good. Record prediction: 4-8
Western Illinois: This program is always competitive and plays tough. Outside expectations aren’t too high for the Leathernecks after losing a talented senior class that played a lot of football in Macomb. But it is the type of team to exceed expectations. While it’s probably too bold to call this a playoff team in the preseason, WIU should compete better than some expect. Record prediction: 6-6
Eastern Illinois: The Panthers have a brutal schedule, one we at HERO Sports ranked the sixth toughest in the FCS. They play one FBS opponent and six FCS teams that have a strong argument to be ranked in the preseason Top 25. EIU was very competitive in most of its OVC games last year and that should continue with experience back at QB and on defense. Record prediction: 5-7
Erik Pitzer, nobowls.com
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Western Illinois: 7-4, Playoff-bound. The Week 3 game against Montana State could prove crucial to their playoff chances.
Illinois State: 7-4, Playoff-bound. Similar to WIU/MSU, their match-up against Northern Arizona will be a key out-of-conference game with big playoff implications.
Southern Illinois: 4-7, Brutal schedule for the Salukis this year. Getting over .500 would be a good accomplishment.
Eastern Illinois: 4-7, The Panthers should compete in the Ohio Valley Conference, but an 0-4 start to the season is very possible.

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