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The Must-Win Game of 2018

The Illini simply cannot lose to their only FCS opponent next season.

NCAA Football: Western Illinois at Northern Illinois Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The last matchup between the Western Illinois Fighting Leathernecks and the Illini resulted in a resounding 44-0 victory for Illinois on September 12, 2015. Simply put, a similar result must occur again in 2018.

Western Illinois had a solid season last year, as they finished 8-4 (5-3), which was good for 4th place in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. The Leathernecks are currently ranked #12 in the FCS Coaches Poll from January 9, 2018.

On offense, Western Illinois returns their two top leading rushers and established quarterback Sean McGuire. However, they will lose their leading receiver, Jaelon Acklin, to graduation next season.

Acklin put together some crazy stats in 2017. The player led the Leathernecks with 1,369 receiving yards, which was over 1,000 yards more than Steve McShane, the next leading receiver (307 yards). Needless to say, the receiver position is going to be a massive question mark for Western Illinois, but the talented McShane could be a playmaker for Western next season:

Defensively, Macomb native Brett Taylor was the undisputed senior leader of the defense. The linebacker made 162 total tackles last season, more than doubling the total for the next leading tackler, Quentin Moon, who had 70 tackles. Just like Acklin on the offensive side of the ball, Taylor leaves huge shoes to fill on defense.

Western Illinois is going to be searching for new identities on both offense and defense, which only reinforces the need for the Illini to not only win this game but to dominate all aspects of the game in the process. Anything less could be a major red flag for the rest of the season.