Bret Bielema boost: No. 24 Illinois ahead of schedule in year two

Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Bret Bielema suddenly has No. 24 Illinois looking like a Big Ten West contender in his second year since replacing Lovie Smith as the Illini’s coach.

They’re ranked for the first time since 2011. They beat Iowa and Wisconsin in the same season for the first time since 1989, and are rolling behind a stingy defense and productive offense.

Bielema is no stranger to success in the Big Ten. He led Wisconsin to three consecutive conference titles and Rose Bowls before departing for seemingly greener pastures at Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference.

The 52-year-old Bielema has changed since his days as a hotshot coaching prospect in Madison. He is perhaps wiser after spending five years and going 29-34 with the Razorbacks before being fired in 2017.

“I think I draw on all the time from my experiences,” he said earlier this week.

Champaign could be seeing the best version of Bielema. Early results indicate he may be taking the Illini (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten) from Big Ten afterthought to a formidable contender in the wide open West Division.

“I think our guys are extremely hungry,” Bielema said. “They’re fun to be around. I don’t know if I’ve enjoyed coaching either before the game, during the game or after the game as much as I have (with) this group.”

He and up-and-coming defensive coordinator Ryan Walters wasted no time turning an occasional leaky defense under Smith into a unit that allows an FBS-best 3.72 yards per play and the fewest points per game (8).

A once listless offense has turned into a productive unit behind FBS-leading rusher Chase Brown (879 yards) and transfer quarterback Tommy DeVito.

When healthy, DeVito is a quality decision-maker in addition to having a talented and accurate arm. An ankle injury he sustained in the 9-6 win over Iowa last week could limit this team, but the running game may well continue to dominate after Brown put up 146 yards against a rock-solid Iowa front.

“Sometimes you’ve got to win things in ways that you don’t plan,” Bielema said.

Already, the Illini are a win away from bowl eligibility. That feat is particularly impressive considering it took Smith four years to reach a bowl and that Illinois has only made six bowls this millennium.

Ron Zook got the Illini off to a 6-0 start in 2011, the program’s last seven-win season, before stumbling out of the rankings with six-straight losses and getting fired before a win over UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

But this start feels sustainable.

“When that (No. 24 ranking) came through, I literally just sat there for a moment and kind of digested it and thought about it, thought it was a good thing,” Bielema said. “I grew up and played for coach (Hayden) Fry (at Iowa). Coach Fry used to always say, `Partner, if you’ve done it, you ain’t bragging.”‘

The program’s upward mobility in the Big Ten West since Bielema’s arrival – especially after Smith went 4-26 against the division – comes as programs like Wisconsin and Iowa idle or regress.

Whether Bielema can now turn on-field improvement into wins on the recruiting trail will also be pivotal.

“Winning affects everything,” Bielema said. “It affects your program, it affects your recruiting, it affects your retainment of your own roster.”

Smith did not leave the cupboard bare, but much of the remaining talent is in its final year of eligibility or may depart to the NFL this spring.

“That’s why I want to ride this wave as long and as high as we possibly can, because it will definitely help us in the future.”

He credits his players, most of them Smith recruits who could have darted after either of the last two seasons. Offensive lineman Alex Palczewski and safety Kendall Smith, both sixth-year players, are contributors who bought into his vision instead of leaving.

“Like a year ago, I was worried guys might bail,” Bielema said. “They had trust and faith in us.”

Texas State hires Incarnate Word coach Kinne to lead Bobcats

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Texas State hired Incarnate Word coach G.J. Kinne on Friday to lead a Sun Belt program that has had only one winning season since moving up to the Bowl Subdivision in 2012.

The 34-year-old former Tulsa quarterback has made a fast rise in coaching since ending his professional career in 2017.

After three years as an offensive analyst at SMU, Arkansas and the Philadelphia Eagles, Kinne became offensive coordinator at Hawaii in 2020. He held the same role for UCF in 2021 before landing the head coaching job at FCS Incarnate Word this season.

Incarnate Word is 10-1 and averaging 53 points and 8.3 yards per play, both FCS highs, heading into its playoff game Saturday against Furman. Kinne will remain with Incarnate Word through their playoff run.

“It’s with great honor that I’m accepting the call to be next head football coach of the Texas State Bobcats,” Kinne said. “We are going to play fast, have relentless energy, and when the going gets tough, have the mental confidence to win tight games in the second half and represent the state of Texas. Eat ‘Em Up!”

Texas State fired Jake Spavital last week after the Bobcats won just 13 games in his four seasons.

Kinne signed a five-year contract, the school said. Terms were not immediately released.

“My goal was to hire someone with demonstrated leadership experience, success as a head coach, established relationships with Texas football coaches, and success with recruiting and developing players,” said Texas State President Kelly Damphousse. “I sought a leader with a plan to capitalize on our location in the heart of the best high school football in the country.”

Florida Atlantic hires Tom Herman as football coach

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BOCA RATON, Fla. – Former Texas and Houston head coach Tom Herman will take over at Florida Atlantic as it heads into its first season in the American Athletic Conference.

The hire comes just days after FAU fired Willie Taggart, who went 15-18 in his three seasons with the Owls. Details of the contract with Herman were not immediately available.

“We are incredibly excited to welcome Tom Herman to Paradise,” FAU Director of Athletics Brian White said Thursday. “Throughout the process and the more we talked with Coach Herman, the more it became apparent to me that he was the right person to lead our football program. Beyond his knowledge of the game, which is obvious by his success over the years, he also truly cares about the young people in his program.”

FAU’s final season in Conference USA ended with a 5-7 record and an overtime loss to Western Kentucky. The Owls will be in the American next season.

Herman returns to college football after spending the 2021 season with the Chicago Bears as an offensive analyst.

Herman was 22-4 at Houston, a mark that helped him land the head coaching job at Texas where he went 32-18 with four straight bowl trips in 2017-2020. He also was an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Ohio State during the Buckeyes’ 2014 national championship season, as well as stops at Iowa State, Rice and Texas State.

“All the pieces are in place at FAU for us to be successful,” Herman said. “There are already great young men on this team, great facilities, a great location, a great recruiting base and great leadership, all of which are important to building a successful program.”