We are 90 some days from the start of another Illinois Fighting Illini Football season. The dog days of summer eventually will pave way to the football days of fall. Here’s a countdown ranking of how the road trips stack up for Lovie Smith and his team.
The formula for this ranking non-scientific. It does not take into account the quality of opponent, nor does it take into account how badly Illinois likely needs to win said game. It mostly has to do with location, location, location — game atmosphere, stadium atmosphere, things to do in and around the destination and what it would be like to spend a weekend on the road at one of these places.
Illini Football Roadtrips: Ranked.
6. Illinois at Northwestern. November 24. Evanston, Illinois.
Yes, Illinois hasn’t beaten Northwestern in three tries. Yes, Illinois has only won one of the las six against the Wildcats. Still, a game in Evanston at the tail end of the season will excite Illini fans.
Illini fans and Big Ten fans alike have long compared Ryan Field at Northwestern to a glorified high school football stadium. It’s true. Nothing about the stadium itself is exciting, the tailgating scene in the parking lot is meh. Evanston and Ryan Field are close to Chicago, and Chicago is great — but for most Illini fans traveling to this game, it’s all been said and done before.
5. Illinois at Rutgers. October 6. Piscataway, New Jersey.
Of the 10 losses Illinois suffered in 2017, the 35-24 beatdown at the hands of Rutgers had to have been the most painful to watch.
Is this a road trip worth taking in 2018 to exact revenge on the State University of New Jersey? Forty miles separate High Point Stadium in Piscataway from Midtown Manhattan. It’s entirely possible to enjoy a fall weekend taking in the sites and sounds of New York City and enjoy a nice/ugly football game at Rutgers as part of this East Coast getaway vacay.
The reason this game doesn’t rank higher?: Compared to all other gameday atmospheres in the Big Ten Conference, Rutgers ranks at the bottom of the list. There’s not much liveliness around campus, the tailgating/parking lot scene is dragging, and since Rutgers more than the other Big Ten universities is a commuter school, there’s a sense of disjointedness and overall disinterest in the happenings of Scarlet Knights football.
Long story, short: Close to New York is a plus. Everything else is... not great.
4. Illinois vs South Florida. September 15. Chicago, Illinois.
The Illini return to Soldier Field in mid-September for a non-conference contest against the University of South Florida Bulls led by former Texas Longhorns and Louisville Cardinals head coach Charlie Strong.
A year ago in Tampa, No. 22 USF stomped on the Illini 47-23. Bulls quarterback Quinton Flowers graduated and will no longer be available to embarrass the Illini D-line.
It’s highly likely Illinois is undefeated heading into this game at 2-0, and there could be some (premature) excitement from the Illini base in Chicago that their orange and blue clad football team might be in contention for a bowl game. Soldier Field hasn’t been too kind to Illinois Football as of late, and considering how normal it is for Illinois to play there every other year or two (why though??!!), this game doesn’t exactly scream excitement relative to some others on this list.
3. Illinois at Nebraska. November 10. Lincoln, Nebraska.
From one set of cornfields to another, Illinois at Nebraska is a road game die hard football enthusiasts will want to be part of. No doubt Nebraska’s fallen on some hard times since their dominance in the 1990s, but with a new coach in town in Scott Frost and a re-invigorated fanbase that never lost the faith, 2018 is a year Nebraska officially hits the reset button and goes into full-on rebuild mode (with a head start on a school like Illinois, of course.)
Lincoln is a quintessential college football town, and Memorial Stadium in Lincoln is one of the best places in the country to watch a game. It’s big. It’s loud. It’s always packed.
Nebraska football doesn’t just belong to alums and students of the university — it encompasses and is very much inclusive of an entire state that lacks any professional sports team. Any visiting fan who has had the opportunity to go to Lincoln knows this and feels this. There’s a mystical feel to going to a game in Lincoln, and is absolutely worth the eight-hour drive from Champaign.
2. Illinois at Maryland. October 27. College Park, Maryland
Illinois has never played the Maryland Terrapins in football. Ever. Both teams have football histories dating back to the late 1800s, and while Maryland recently-ish joined the Big Ten Conference in 2014, these two teams haven’t faced one another until now.
The heart of Maryland’s campus is just 15 miles away from the White House and many of Washington DC’s sites. The University of Maryland is included in and has its own stop along the subway/DC Metrorail system, making access for students and visitors between DC and the close college town extremely easy.
Maryland’s football stadium itself is apparently nothing to write home about, but its close proximity to the nation’s capital combined with the fact that Illinois has never been there before makes this one an intriguing, trailblazing opportunity for traveling Illini fans.
1. Illinois at Wisconsin. October 20. Madison, Wisconsin
Is there a better college town in America than Madison? The answer to that is an emphatic “no!”, unless you’re talking about Champaign.
A trip to Wisconsin has all positives and no negatives when it comes to planning a trip there from the Illinois fan perspective.
Madison is relatively close to Champaign and Chicago. There are plenty of hotels, bars and restaurants, and there is so much to do outside of going to the game. Between the lakes and rolling hills covered in brightly colored trees on a football Saturday, Madison is the perfect blend of pretty campus and natural beauty.
Camp Randall is a perfect college football stadium: It’s huge but not too huge, it’s well-located in the city and around campus, it has history and has been renovated numerous times but maintains its classic charm and aura.
The Illini have lost the last eight in a row to Wisconsin and haven’t beaten the Badgers in Madison since 2002. None of that matters when choosing to take a weekend trip to Madison. It’s just an ideal college football destination.
What do you fans think of this ranking? What would you change? Comment below!