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Who is Illinois’ rival?

Is your answer instantaneous, or do you have to think a bit?

Illinois v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Who is Illinois’ rival? It’s a simple question on its surface. When someone asks you, do you find yourself answering immediately, without hesitation? Or do you pause, think for a few seconds and then deliver a long-winded answer?

This entire topic makes for good, reasonable debate and there’s no doubt there are complexities here most other programs would not understand or frankly have to deal with.

Alabama, who’s your rival? Auburn — those babies throw toilet paper on tree branches whenever they win a game.

Texas, who’s your rival? Oklahoma. With a small side of Texas A&M.

Ohio State, who’s your rival? Michigan, that “team up north.”

Illinois has more than one option, and the thing is — more than half of these listed options, if you ask any of their fans/alumni — wouldn’t consider Illinois their primary rival.

The Big Ten is a conference steeped in rich tradition, so nothing is really “made up” unless you count so-called rivalries that include relative newbies of Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers.

Northwestern Wildcats

Illinois v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Case for: Only in-state Big Ten rival. Land of Lincoln Trophy up for grabs each and every year. Series dates back to 1892. Illinois has played Northwestern 112 times, an opponent Illinois has both played and beaten more than any other team in school history. Both schools are founding members of the Big Ten Conference.

Case against: Though this has changed in recent years, historically, Northwestern is not as much of a ra-ra, passionate sports fanbase like the rest of the Big Ten is. Northwestern’s a private school with an extreme-focus on academics. In the past, Northwestern has put DI collegiate athletics on the back-burner. Northwestern’s basketball tradition is... lacking to put it nicely. Northwestern’s enrollment is a fraction the size of other Big Ten universities, so their living alumni base is a lot smaller in sheer numbers compared to Illinois’.

Indiana Hoosiers

Case for: Border-state in the heart of Big Ten country. Basketball rivalry particularly in the 1980’s, but really over the course of generations is as intense as they come. At least in my opinion, there’s no other team Illinois has on its basketball schedule I’d rather beat than the Hoosiers.

Case against: Indiana’s football tradition is practically non-existent. The Hoosiers haven’t been a player on the national stage in... forever, especially compared to the likes of Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and yes, even Northwestern.

Purdue Boilermakers:

Illinois v Purdue Photo by Cory Seward/Getty Images

Case for: Campus-to-campus distance from Champaign to West Lafayette is closer than any other two Big Ten schools in the conference. Purdue’s basketball tradition is similarly strong to Illinois — with lots of success and plenty of heartbreak to boot. Lou Henson and Gene Keady battled it out and shared a sideline for 16 years in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

In football, Illinois and Purdue fight for the Cannon in a series that dates back to 1890. Another major case for: 93 games played in this series. 44 wins for Illinois. 43 wins for Purdue. Six ties. Win percentage of .505. This one is close, with both teams exchanging back-and-forth blows.

Case against: Hard to come up with anything here. Purdue does not have the “flash” — for lack of a better term — than say Indiana or the schools coming up next on this list. Purdue fans loathe the Hoosiers far more than they do the Illini, so the fact that the Illini-Purdue hate might not be as much of a two-way street could knock the Boilermakers down a bit.

Iowa Hawkeyes:

Illinois v Iowa

Case for: Distance and bordering state. Illinois and Iowa have a lot in common as far as midwest public, state universities are concerned. Basketball programs are at a similar juncture right now, while Iowa Football appears lightyears ahead of the Illini.

Case against: No trophy game here, despite the Illini having Iowa on the schedule just about every year. From 2009-2013 these two did not play against one another — blame the Leaders and Legends for that.

Wisconsin Badgers:

Wisconsin v Illinois
Juice Williams escapes the Wisconsin rush, circa 2007
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Case for: It’s pretty much a Bears vs. Packers rivalry! Bordering state and close to Chicago, Wisconsin’s owned the Illini as of late on the gridiron. Illini fans travel well when they play the Badgers in Madison, and the inviting college town combined with a high level of consistency in football and basketball makes this a fun rivalry to be part of.

Case against: It’s really, really hard to consider the Badgers a football rival these days when Illinois hasn’t won a game in 11 years going on 12. There’s no trophy game here, and to Badger fans — beating the Gophers is hell of a lot more important than beating the Illini.

Michigan Wolverines:

Red Grange plays against Michigan in 1924
Chicago Tribune Archives

Case for: In the early days of Illinois Football and back when Red Grange was the sport’s biggest star, Illinois and Michigan were the Big Ten football powers. For newer fans, the 2010 edition of Michigan vs. Illinois Football in Ann Arbor was a record-shattering combined-point performance. Generally speaking, most Illinois football players were overlooked or not considered at all by Michigan in the recruiting process. That sorta creates a competitive, us-against-the-world animosity.

Case against: Going to football and basketball games, you’ll see see orange and blue “Muck Fichigan” shirts, but those are becoming scarce. When an Illinois fan expresses distaste for the Michigan fan, you’ll likely get a “why do you hate us?” type of response. “Illinois fans consider us a rival?? What? Why?” Especially and now that Michigan is in the Big Ten East, these games don’t happen as often. Meanwhile, Michigan’s fight for Big Ten Football supremacy per usual has to go through Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State — Illinois is merely an afterthought.

Ohio State Buckeyes:

Ohio State v Illinois
Illini QB Nate Scheelhaase scores a touchdown against Ohio State in 2010
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Case for: Is there a better trophy than the wooden IlliBuck Turtle? On the basketball court, Ohio State feels like one of the more underrated programs nationally, and both the Illini and Buckeyes recruit the same players (i.e. EJ Liddell and Evan Turner) in Chicagoland and elsewhere.

Case against: Illinois and Ohio State don’t play as much as they used to given conference re-alignment. Ohio State’s been a player for national titles in football pretty much each decade since they joined the conference in 1912 — Illinois has had more downs than ups. Ohio State’s been to 15 Rose Bowls, Illinois to just 5.

What do you think?


Who is Illinois’ primary rival?

This poll is closed

  • 48%
    (162 votes)
  • 22%
    (76 votes)
  • 6%
    (23 votes)
  • 16%
    (56 votes)
  • 1%
    (5 votes)
  • 2%
    (8 votes)
  • 1%
    Ohio State
    (6 votes)
336 votes total Vote Now