I am usually not one to toot my own horn, but I'll allow myself an exception in this case. Last year, I wrote a similar segment to the one you're about to read where I predicted the football team's record, and I must say, I nailed it. I called for a 6-6 season with a tough loss in the bowl game. So it would only make sense for me to predict an undefeated run to the College Football Playoff for this season, right? The schedule certainly doesn't hurt Illinois' chances.
To help break down the 2015 slate I've divided the games into different "tiers" of the season and provided a prediction for each as well. Every opponent will be followed by their ranking among ESPN's Football Power Index, a tool that measures a program's strength to try and determine how they will perform throughout the year. As a side note in case you're wondering, the Illini currently sit at 62nd overall. So without further ado let's look at the Illinois Fighting Illini schedule.
Season One ("Non-Conference," Projected 4-0 record)
1. vs Kent State (101st best team in the nation)... The 2015 campaign kicks off under the Friday night lights at Memorial Stadium on September 4th against Kent State, a team that won just two games last year. The Golden Flashes do return 17 starters and boast a strong backfield that includes running back Nick Holley, who averaged 60 yards per game in just four appearances in 2014. But there is a reason this team lost nine games last year, and they are 1-14 all-time against Big Ten foes. The season will get off to a strong start for Illinois in the first non-Saturday night game in Champaign since 2001. Let's go ahead and call this a WIN.
2. vs Western Illinois (N/A)... The last time the Illini faced off against the Leathernecks was back in 2007, when the orange and blue pitched a 21-0 shutout win. The Western Illinois program has undergone changes since these two last met, and new head coach Bob Nielson got his team to a 5-7 record last year with close losses to North Dakota State and Illinois State. But the Illini haven't lost a game to an FCS opponent in 12 years, and they shouldn't have any trouble putting away the Leathernecks in this one. WIN.
3. @ North Carolina (55th best team in the nation)... The Tar Heels put together a decent 2014 campaign that ended in a bowl appearance in Detroit, but it was all downhill from there. Fellow Big Ten member Rutgers blasted UNC 40-21 in a game that was over by the end of the first half. The Tar Heels then fired their defensive coordinator (does the name Vic Koenning sound familiar?), defensive assistant coach, and linebackers coach in the offseason. But despite the turnover and the poor bowl performance, North Carolina does have some talent. They return the most starters of any ACC team this season and have a superior quarterback in Marquise Williams. He led the Tar Heels in rushing (the first QB at the program to do so since 1968) and also finished with one of the highest pass efficiency ratings in school history. The defense, however, leaves a lot to be desired, and a lot for the Illinois offense to take advantage of. The Illini are 0-2 all-time against North Carolina, but that will change this year. I'll tag this toss-up game as a close WIN on the road.
4. vs Middle Tennessee (86th-best team in the nation)... You have to appreciate the way AD Mike Thomas has been scheduling these non-conference home games. Another lower-level opponent that was willing to come to Champaign (for good money, of course) but will most likely leave with a loss. The Blue Raiders have an excellent wide receiver in Ed'Marques Batties, who led the team in receptions and touchdowns last year and also boast a very mobile quarterback in junior Austin Grammer. But the defensive talent-level isn't there, as they ranked near the bottom of Conference-USA last year in almost every defensive category. Illinois is 2-0 all-time against Middle Tennessee and shouldn't have too many problems with them the third time around. This should be an excellent way to cap off a perfect non-conference slate with another WIN.
Season Two ("Show Us What You're Made Of," Projected 1-2 record)
1. vs Nebraska (34th best team in the nation)... There's something deceiving about Illinois having only the seventh-toughest schedule in the Big Ten this season. While it's true that nearly half of the conference have "harder" schedules, those teams all rank amongst the top 25 nationally. Which means that the Illini, despite being in the bottom 50 percent of the Big Ten in schedule difficulty, are actually in the top 25 percent nationally. They have the 33rd-toughest slate of games in all of the FBS, and it starts at home against Nebraska on October 3rd. The Huskers lost their stud running back Ameer Abdullah in the offseason to the NFL but don't go to sleep on their offense, which still has a lot of talent. Nebraska will bring a strong fan presence with them to Champaign, and they've had their way with Illinois since joining the Big Ten. This will feel more like a neutral site game, and the Illini are 2-9 against them all-time, so this will be a tough LOSS.
2. @ Iowa (57th best team in the nation)... Iowa and Illinois have only faced off once since 2008. Before last season's matchup there had been a seven year drought in the series. But now that both teams are in the same division, you'd better get used to the Hawkeyes because they're here to stay. This season's contest takes place in Iowa City, a place that the Illini haven't won in since the 20th century. The Hawekyes lost their starting quarterback Jake Rudock, who transferred to Michigan, but return 12 starters who helped them reach seven wins in 2014. They might be even better in 2015, and Illinois has lost five of the last six matchups between these two. LOSS.
3. vs Wisconsin (39th best team in the nation)... This is the first of two games that I think will really define the season. The second is when the team travels to take on Minnesota, but more on that later. The Badgers are a very good team that has had a lot of recent success, especially against the Illini. But Wisconsin has a new head coach, Paul Chryst, who had decent but not fantastic success at Pitt (19-19 overall), and they lost star back Melvin Gordon and almost half of their offensive line to the NFL. Even though this game is in Champaign, it would still be a monumental upset for Beckman to pull off a win against the Badgers. It might even send the rest of the season into a direction few people thought it would go in. I'm going to shock the world and say Illinois shows us what they're made of on homecoming and pulls off a dramatic, come-from-behind WIN against a Wisconsin team that could be a little worse than we're accustomed to seeing from them.
Season Three ("The Gauntlet" Projected 1-2 record)
1. @ Penn State (26th best team in the nation)... Two tough road games followed up by Ohio State at home. Yikes. The Illini's longest trip away from Memorial Stadium this season will start in Week Eight against the Nittany Lions, a team that was mighty confusing to figure out last year. James Franklin's program started out 4-0, then went 0-4, then returned to their winning ways with a short 2-0 stretch, then lost their last two games of the season to finish 6-6. Expect another up-and-down campaign in Happy Valley, but the Christian Hackenberg-led Lions should be better at home this season. This will be a close road LOSS.
2. @ Purdue (78th best team in the nation)... The road trip continues into West Lafayette against the Boilermakers one week later. This will be a revenge game for the Illini, who laid an egg against Purdue at home last season and also lost their starting quarterback Wes Lunt to a leg injury in the process. Darrell Hazell's bunch made a lot of improvements in his second year at the helm in 2014, and they are poised to take yet another step forward this season, but they're still not quite ready for the postseason. It's not a good idea to sleep, however, because there's a possibility the Illini could walk away from this "gauntlet" stretch 0-3 if they assume this will be a victory. I, however, am going to assume this will be a victory. It's the Boilermakers' homecoming weekend, but the Illini will have the edge in talent and will walk away with their first road WIN of the season.
3. vs Ohio State (#1 team in the nation)... I almost considered making this game an entire section of its own, because while it is definitely a part of "the gauntlet," the results from the previous two contests will carry very little meaning into this one. Not much to be said here. Maybe we can get a Saturday night ABC selection? Theyyyyy are the champions, my friends. LOSS.
Season Four ("The Definitive Stretch" Projected 1-1 record)
4. @ Minnesota (36th best team in the nation)... This is it. This is our season right here. Two games, both winnable, neither one in Memorial Stadium. If nothing goes according to plan, the Illini could be faced with the task of having to win both matchups to reach a bowl game. The good news in a scenario like that, I suppose, is that Illinois did just that last season, winning games against Penn State and Northwestern to get to the postseason. But if you're following my predictions so far and aren't too bad at math you'll notice that I have the Illini at 6-4 coming into the "definitive stretch" of the year. That takes a tremendous amount of pressure off the team's shoulders and means this stretch doesn't have to be as defining as it could be. If Illinois is already bowl-eligible, they're playing with house money at Minnesota. Speaking of the Gophers, Jerry Kill's group returns only ten starters from last year's eight-win campaign, but junior quarterback Mitch Leidner, who led the team in almost every offensive category last year, is one of them. They'll also be looking for revenge against the Illini, who upset them last season after V'Angelo Bentley scooped up a fumble and ran it into the end zone for the game-winning score. If this game were in Champaign I'd feel a lot better about Illinois' chances, but it's not, so it will be a close road LOSS.
5. vs Northwestern (65th best team in the nation)... Another scenario (one that I personally like a lot better than the former) could be that the Illini are comfortably into the postseason, already having reached six wins, but the Wildcats are not. They might be 5-6 heading into this Illinois "home game" at Soldier Field. And wouldn't you just love to watch the hearts of the 120 Northwestern faithful in attendance be crushed for the second consecutive season?? Fitzgerald's bunch is 8-4 since 2003 in their annual battle against the Illini, but since 2010 they've surrendered three out of five to the orange and blue. The last time these two teams met on a neutral field in Chicago it was the Wrigley Field game, where Illinois and Mikel Leshoure pummeled that team from up north 48-27. While this year might not be that lopsided of a contest, I expect the Illini to win this one somewhat handily. A good way to cap off the regular season with another WIN.
So here's the bottom line: if the Illini can manage to take care of business in the non-conference (ideally a four-game sweep), that leaves them with plenty of opportunities to reach six wins and postseason eligibility. It can be done. Except for the Ohio State game, I don't see a home matchup that should be automatically penciled in as a loss. That's three Big Ten "toss-up" games and Illinois has the home-field advantage in all of them. I'd like to assume the team will also pick up at least one or two road wins (Purdue? Iowa?), so if all the cards fall just right, seven or even eight victories isn't totally out of the realm of possibility, but that's a very optimistic take. One could also argue that with the two cross-division games coming against Ohio State and Penn State, star wideout Mike Dudek being out until at least October or November with a torn ACL, and quarterback Wes Lunt's injury history, expectations should be tempered greatly. No matter what the case is you can expect an up-and-down rollercoaster ride of a football season; but that's nothing new for Illini fans.