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Illinois Fighting Illini

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Smith says big picture is bright

The record paints a picture about as gloomy as winter in Champaign. At 2-8 and facing two games against top-25 teams to end the season, including a trip to Ohio State Saturday, the Fighting Illini seem doomed to a second 2-10 record since 2012.

But coach Lovie Smith, while admitting the record isn't what he or anyone else would want around the program, spent part of his game-week press conference extolling what's happening off the field. Improved facilities. All the young players getting on-the-job-training that should pay off down the road. Better recruiting.

Times are tough right now, but Smith is firm in his belief that the needle will start pointing north for this program that has suffered on almost a weekly basis for most of the last six seasons.

"If you look a little deeper, our program is in a lot better shape than it was," he said. "You have to look at which way you're trending, and I'd have to say we're trending up. We've played a lot of young players that have gotten valuable time, but have improved as football players. I can't wait for us to finish up the season the right way."

Cynics might say that Smith will have to wait until 2018 for that. Drawing Ohio State for its last home game seems a recipe for an epic rout, with only the possibility that its players and fans are looking ahead to next week's rivalry showdown at Michigan working in Illinois' favor.

The spread option offense has not been a favorite of the Fighting Illini defense in recent years, and few quarterbacks run it better than J.T Barrett when he's at peak efficiency. Not that the Buckeyes figure to need a lot of offense against a team which hasn't scored more than 24 points in a game this year.

But a mixture of contractual obligation and opportunity beckon Illinois for another date with disaster at Ohio Stadium. It is a potential nightmare experience like that that Smith feels will toughen his team for the better times that he says lie ahead in 2018, 2019 and beyond.

"We've taken steps and eventually, we're going to get over the hump," he said. "There are a lot of things to get excited about. The future is looking bright on the field, off the field, the new facilities. Our program is a program that's on the rise."

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