I know Illinois almost lost to Ball State last year, and maybe because of that I should feel a bit unconfident, but I’m feeling that this will be a very routine Big Ten team at home beating a MAC team kind of game. Kent State is ranked 127th out of 130 teams in S&P+ preseason rankings. They have a new first year head coach. They are installing a new defense and offense with players who weren’t recruited to fit either system. Illinois won’t be playing a lot of true freshmen in their first college football game. I also think Rod Smith has a few things in store that Kent State won’t be prepared for as he is now in total control of an offense rather than being an assistant to Rich Rod. I think Illinois has two 30+ yard TDs and win the game handily. Illinois 34 - Kent State 13
Illinois will have to work around a traditionally “speedy” Kent State defense in this one, but having AJ Bush running the offense plays to the advantage of the Orange and Blue. Mike Epstein is back, and Ricky Smalling will be the first playmaking receiver to look for in the new Rod Smith offense. Defensively, I would LOVE to see the Illini snag 2-3 turnovers in this contest. Hard to win ‘em all if you don’t win the first! Illinois 32 - Kent State 13
This should be a tune-up game for Illinois to work out the kinks. AJ Bush will get a couple of games to work against live competition to help create a rapport with his receivers. The defense might be a bit thin on depth, but they’ll have plenty of time to adjust in these first two games. Illinois 42 - Kent State 14
If this one isn’t a win, I might legitimately quit. Last year, I about went into cardiac arrest after Illinois almost lost to a Ball State team that went winless in MAC play. Kent State is also a bottom-of-the-barrell MAC team, but hopefully with the departure of Garrick McGee, Rod Smith’s new offense and a healthy (*knocks on wood profusely*) Mike Dudek and Mike Epstein, the offense can get going by the second quarter. The defense is more experienced than last year, although that may not mean much at this point, but they won’t break too much again the Golden Flashes’ offense. Illinois 37 - Kent State 10
If you don’t feel good about the Illini playing Kent State, then you’re probably not going to feel good all season. I want to feel good this season, so I’ve got Illinois — and big. AJ Bush feels he has a lot to prove in his starting role, and I think he runs with it (for now), literally and figuratively. Chalk him up for a rushing TD or two, and add in a pick-six. That would get me feeling somewhat good about what’s next. Illinois 35 - Kent State 10
I predicted a three win season. This has to be one of them. I don’t want to entertain a universe where Illinois doesn’t win this game. I think Illinois is going to run roughshod over the Kent State defense. Recaps are going to be written about how Rod Smith’s rushing attack offense is going to cure Illinois. The tweeters and radio callers will be abuzz. There will be plenty of overreactions. AJ Bush won’t have to do much, but he will give the fans hope with a clean and poised performance. The defense will be zipping around and making plays. Just enjoy it. Illinois 42 - Kent State 17.
There’s no reason Illinois shouldn’t run away with this game, but watching Illini football closely over the past few years has taught me that nothing ever comes easy. This game will be no exception.It will be eerily reminiscent of the season opener against Ball State last season. The Illini will maintain a thin lead throughout the game on the backs of Mike Epstein, Mike Dudek, and AJ Bush. Every time it seems like Illinois should break it open, a devastating penalty or costly turnover will keep the Golden Flashes in the game. A late game touchdown puts it away for the Illini, but the game ends up being much more stressful than it should’ve been. Illinois 31 - Kent State 21.
Expect Illinois to take 50 weeks of frustration out on Kent State. With AJ Bush ready to execute Rod Smith’s newly minted offense and the defense ready to show what they can do with a year of experience under their belt, the Golden Flashes will step into buzzsaw. The Illini have been a media punching bag all offseason, but the media only sees growth linearly and is incapable of accounting for exponential growth. The coaching staff and players are sick of being told they have no talent and can’t compete. The Illini will score early and often. Expect Bush, Mike Epstein, Ricky Smalling, and Mike Dudek to make huge chunk plays all day and the defense to force at least 3 turnovers. Illinois 49 - Kent State 3
Lovie Smith announced his starting quarterback with a full week of possible preparation for Kent State. He’s either realized that AJ Bush winning the quarterback job was the worst kept secret in central Illinois, or he’s confident that his group has evolved to a place where Kent State is the scheduling warm up its supposed to be. I’m betting it’s a combination of the two factors, and he’s right. Illinois has a couple years to go before these intended cupcakes are turf fodder, but the revamped offense should post enough points to make the Illini look good on opening day. I imagine the hyperbole runs wild with Bush’s exploits after what’s a potentially ridiculous offensive stat day. Illinois 38 - Kent State 17
Illinois football is finally back and this game should be a nice tune-up for bigger matches later in the season. Expect AJ Bush to have a solid game on the ground and in the air, despite the speedy defense that Kent State utilizes. The Illini should have an offensive field day to open the season as they trounce Kent State, like they should. Illinois 51 - Kent State 7
This is a Kent State team that is trying to install a new pass-heavy offense and transitioning from 4-3 to 3-4 under a first-year head coach working without a deep roster. Frankly, if Kent State wins this game, Sean Lewis will immediately become my number one coach to replace Lovie Smith with, because to have this team playing that well in week 1 would be a miracle.
That being said, we’re Illinois fans. There’s no such thing as a game you don’t worry about. Seeing all these predictions makes me gun-shy because I feel like we’re not sufficiently prepared for the Illini to struggle. Illinois can’t finish drives and makes a few huge mistakes while the Golden Flashes play out of their minds and get some luck. Still, I really struggle to imagine them winning. Illinois 23 - Kent State 14
The Illini haven’t lost a season opener in 20 years, and I don’t think the streak ends on Saturday. Kent State comes into town looking to improve on a 2-10 campaign with a new head coach and new schemes. Whether you think Illinois is going to win two games or six, this has to be one of them. Illinois 38 - Kent State 13