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Illinois to open 2021 season in Ireland

We’re going to Dublin.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Illinois Michael Allio-USA TODAY Sports

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The University of Illinois, the University of Nebraska, and Irish American Events Limited have partnered together to bring a Big Ten matchup to Dublin, Ireland on Saturday Aug. 28, 2021.

“The University of Illinois, our football program, our alumni and fans, and the entire Fighting Illini family are in for a once-in-a-lifetime experience on the Emerald Isle,” University of Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman said in a statement. “When first approached about this game almost two years ago, we had immediate interest. This game will provide an incredible educational opportunity for our football student-athletes who, because of their schedule, generally do not receive the same international experience as many of our student-athletes. For our fans, I hope they will journey with us across the Atlantic for a wonderful trip and a major football game, all set against the beauty of Ireland.”

The game will be played in week zero of the college football season. It will take the place of Illinois’ home contest against Nebraska on November 13, so that week will serve as the Illini’s second bye of the 2021 season.

Whitman described the appeal of playing in week zero.

“All eyes in the college football world will be on us,” Whitman said.

This will be the first Illinois football game held outside of the United States.

Whitman traveled with the Illini basketball team to Italy and used that experience to push him to make the decision. Mentioning that the experiences the student athletes had were too positive to not give the Illini football team the same opportunity, despite sacrificing a home game.

“Giving up a home football game here at Memorial Stadium is not a decision we make easily,” Whitman said.

Whitman would not have pulled the trigger if it had been against an across-conference game like a Michigan or Penn State due to the fact that the Illini play them at home only once every four years. Whitman was much more intrigued to give away a home game against a team that the Illini play at home every two years.

The Illini athletic director ultimately decided, after weighing the pros and cons, that this is an opportunity he and the Illini could not pass up on.

“Our plan is to field a high-level team, to go out and get a spotlight win,” Whitman said.

The team will travel to Ireland by Wednesday morning to take in the sights and sounds of Irish country, adjust to the time difference and prepare for the cornhuskers. Television assignment and game time has yet to be determined.

The game even has an official title, the Aer Lingus College Football Classic and the Illini will play for a trophy called Keough-Naughton College Football Trophy that Georgia State currently holds after beating Boston College in 2016.

Whitman said the game will be “comparable” to a bowl game for Illinois.

Meanwhile, Lord Mayor of Dublin Paul McAuffile expressed his and the city of Dublin’s excitement in welcoming the Big Ten to Ireland.

“When college football visits Dublin, the whole city gets involved,” McAuliffe said.

What McAuliffe said sums up the experience as a whole as best as possible.

“It’s more than a game.”