In 2012, the Illini had the 17th-toughest schedule in the nation according to football guru Phil Steele. They went 2-10. In 2013, they were ranked 20th in a similar poll and finished 4-8. Now their strength of schedule ranks just 48th in the nation, and the Illinois faithful are dreaming of the postseason. But before we take a look at their specific schedule, let's digress and take a look at the national landscape as a whole.
A reminder that these ratings are based off of Phil Steele's rankings.
- Wisconsin has the easiest schedule of any Big Ten team, and almost any team in the nation
- Iowa has the second easiest schedule, not far behind the Badgers
- Rutgers has the toughest schedule of any Big Ten team, and the 13th toughest in the nation
- Maryland has the second toughest and are in the same division as Rutgers is
Welcome to the Big Ten, boys. Now let's look at the Illinois Fighting Illini schedule for the 2014 campaign. I've broken the slate of games down into different "tiers" or "sections" of the season so the individual games are easier to analyze, and provided a prediction for each as well. Each opponent will be followed by their "power ranking" complements of Phil Steele.
Season One ("Non-Conference," Projected 3-1 record)
1. vs Youngstown State (N/A; FCS school)... This opening day game against the YSU Penguins seems like the perfect opportunity to get off to a great start for the 2014 season. They finished 8-4 with a conference record of 5-3 last year, but only played one FBS opponent, the Michigan State Spartans, whom they lost to 55-17. By the way, the Penguins are coached by Eric Wolford, who coached the Illinois offensive line from 2007-08. They have a talented RB in Martin Ruiz, but nothing the Illini defense shouldn't be able to handle. Their defense was porous in 2013 so the offense under Bill Cubit should light up the scoreboard. Let's go ahead and call this one a WIN.
2. vs Western Kentucky (92nd-best team in nation)... This was going to be a little more awesome if Bobby Petrino were still coaching at WKU, but now he's at Louisville and the coaching duties fall to Jeff Brohm, who was the offensive coordinator last season under Petrino. The Hilltoppers finished 8-4 in their final year in the Sun Belt Conference and have made the move to Conference-USA. They return a decent group of WR's including senior Willie McNeal and a promising group of freshman. Their running back, Leon Allen, had 647 rushing yards with seven scores in his last two years combined at WKU. It's fair to say that their offense is worth keeping an eye on, but this should be another WIN to make it 2-0 on the season.
3. @ Washington (28th-best team)... This will be one of the most important games of the entire year. It'll be a nationally televised game in the Huskies' brand new stadium, which should make for a hostile environment. UW lost a lot of offensive talent to the NFL after 2013 when they defeated the Illini by ten at Soldier Field in Chicago, including star RB Bishop Sankey, QB Keith Price, and TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins. They went 9-4 last season and beat BYU in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. But head coach Steve Sarkisian bolted for USC, so the Huskies went out and grabbed Chris Peterson from Boise State, a coach who's certainly made himself known nation-wide. It's tough to say exactly what effect he'll have on UW, but they'll certainly be a good team and were ranked in the AP Poll's Preseason Top 25. If this game were in Champaign I'd feel a lot better about the Illini's chances, but it's not, so I'll go ahead and tag this game as a close LOSS on the road.
4. vs Texas State (113th-best team)... You have to appreciate the way AD Mike Thomas has been scheduling these non-conference schedules now that the Ron Guenther mess is a thing of the past. Another opponent that was willing to come to Champaign (for good money, of course) and will probably leave with a loss. The Bobcats went 6-6 in the Sun Belt last year, and were a very streaky team. They started 3-0, then lost three straight, then won three straight again to become 6-3, then lost their final three games to finish at .500. Their most notable opponent was Texas Tech, a team they lost to by 26 points. To put it simply, Texas State isn't very good and this should be a good way to cap off the non-conference season with another WIN.
Season Two ("Not Much To See Here," Projected 1-2 record)
1. @ Nebraska (40th-best team)... The Cornhuskers are an interesting team. Some are calling for Bo Pelini's head if this season doesn't end well. Others think this team could be in the playoff hunt if all goes well. QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. showed flashes of potential last year, but can he develop into a quality and consistent quarterback? The Illini will make their way to Lincoln for their first night game of the year and I'm not expecting much here. They got blown out by a Nebraska team last year that was worse than the one the Huskers have now, so unless the competition is between which teams' uniforms will be better, I'll go ahead and mark this one as a road LOSS to start the Big Ten season.
2. vs Purdue (108th-best team)... Western Kentucky is nearly 20 spots better than the Boilermakers. That's just sad. The Illini should be favored in this game at home, but watch out for Purdue. Illinois spoiled their Senior Day last year and this game will be the Boilers' season, in a sense, because it's one of the few games they probably think they have a chance at winning. We'll see just how much passion and energy Purdue comes out with, but I doubt they'll eek out a victory either way. The Illini will WIN this one to take themselves to 4-2 overall.
3. @ Wisconsin (15th-best team)... In the last two years against Wisconsin, the Illini have given up 87 points and lost by a combined 41 points. Yikes. And last year this slaughterhouse took place at Memorial Stadium; Illinois won't have that luxury this season. It has been noted many times on TCR that the Illini defense couldn't stop the run game in 2013, and now they'll get to deal with Melvin Gordon and a hostile crowd on the road. Let's mark this one down as a LOSS, as each one of these past three games shouldn't surprise anyone. I don't expect wins at Nebraska or Wisconsin, and I don't expect anything but one at home versus Purdue. Not much to see here.
Season Three ("The Defining Stretch," Projected 2-3 record)
1. vs Minnesota (73rd-best team)... This is it. This is the game that defines Illinois' 2014 campaign. It's homecoming. Minnesota has won its last four trips to Champaign. The team could likely be sitting at 4-3 with only two more wins needed to reach the postseason. But looking at the final five games, this is clearly one of their best opportunities to get a win. This contest falls between tough trips to Wisconsin and Ohio State and immediately after a bye week, so the Illini should have their homework done on the Golden Gophers. They finished 8-5 in 2013 but lost QB Phillip Nelson. Now the offense is under Mitch Leidner's control, a guy that wasn't really asked to do that much leading last year. This is a winnable game that could be the difference between the Illini booking flight plans in late December or sitting at home on their couches for a third straight season. And I'm going to call it a WIN.
2. @ Ohio State (4th-best team)... This ranking of where the Buckeyes stand amongst the best teams in the nation will change drastically now that QB Braxton Miller is out for the year (as a side note, wouldn't it be SO Illinois if Miller were supposed to miss the whole year and somehow magically came back just in time for this late November game? Sheesh). The Illini have lost six in a row and are 1-9 in their last 10 games against Ohio State, and that's not to say that without Miller this Buckeyes team is going to be terrible. Their defense will remain intact and they have a good core group of WR's and RB's despite the loss of Carlos Hyde. But this game goes from "snoozer in the second half" to "interesting upset special" now that Miller is down. I'll still pin it as a LOSS for now, though.
3. vs Iowa (34th-best team)... Speaking of upset special, here's mine. Though the home win against Minnesota might be considered to be an upset by some, Iowa is a preseason West Division title contender, and the Illini could catch the Hawkeyes looking ahead to their final games against Wisconsin and Nebraska. This will be the first time Illinois has played Iowa since 2008, when the Illini won in dramatic fashion on a last-minute Matt Eller field goal, and I'll be daring and say the exact same scenario presents itself again. Taylor Zalewski is injured in the third quarter of the game, and Justin DuVernois comes on to attempt a 45-yard field goal to win the game. Crowd making noise. The snap is good, the hold is good, the kick is right between the uprights. BOOM. Bowl eligibility. WIN.
4. vs Penn State (37th-best team)... This is a game I think Illini fans are taking too lightly. Sure, Penn State is down now that Bill O'Brien bolted for the NFL. But James Franklin is a recruiting mastermind and knows what he's doing in Happy Valley. If this game were a road contest I would think that most people would be considering this a loss, but it's at Memorial Stadium so everyone seems to be discounting the Nittany Lions. May I remind you all that this PSU team came into Champaign two years ago and beat the hell out of Illinois, 35-7. I'm going to call this game a very close LOSS right now, though you could pretty much mix-and-match Iowa and Penn State as wins and losses.
5. @ Northwestern (50th-best team)... And here's the kicker. The road finale at the rival Wildcats. Based on my predictions the Illini sit at 6-5 going into this contest and are comfortably into the postseason, but you know they'll be wanting more. A 7-5 campaign would be great, wouldn't it? Especially capping it all off with a road victory at Northwestern. The Wildcats have certainly taken some blows this offseason, with top WR Christian Jones out for the entire season and star RB Venric Mark leaving the program. That's not to say they don't have talent, though, and I think the fact that this game is in Evanston makes it another close LOSS for Illinois to finish the year at 6-6.
So here's the bottom line: Illinois needs to be at least 4-4 or 5-3 entering November because going 2-2 in these last four games may be asking too much. The margin for error is undoubtedly slim for the Illini in 2014, but it's certainly an achievable goal to reach the postseason in Tim Beckman's third year as head coach.