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Know Your Opponent: Week 8, Wisconsin Badgers

Homecoming for the Illini might not be pretty again.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 27 Pinstripe Bowl - Miami v Wisconsin Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Hey! It’s me! Your friendly Illini fan who lives in Badger territory.

And by lives in Badger territory, I mean I had a roommate for my first two months in Madison that currently attends the University of Wisconsin. My coworkers at my TV station are (journalists and) Badgers fans.

I don’t think they even realize the suffering we go through. Most of them are somewhat down on this season — shaky QB situation, eventually due for some kind of fall off — and they still expect to be in the conversation for a Big Ten West division title, or — at worst — a bowl.

How rough that must be.

Now, this Week 8 matchup in Champaign is Illinois’ Homecoming, and you need to think that the Illini will be more prepared in 2019 for the big game than the 46-7 loss to Purdue last season. But, if Illinois’ defense can’t figure out how to stop anything, then Jonathan Taylor is by far one of the most difficult targets for the Illini all season.

At Big Ten Media Days, Taylor, who is somehow a junior playing his 34th season in Madison, says he isn’t focused on the NFL or anything else right now; just his third year, which might end in a Heisman if things roll the right way. A quick look at his 2018 stats, and he ran for nearly 2,200 yards, 16 touchdowns and grabbed a measly eight balls in the air. According to an interview with The Athletic, Wisconsin’s coaching staff plans to increase his involvement in the passing game this season, so Taylor could potentially have 3,000+ all-purpose yards. That’s nuts.

Incredibly, the Badgers may need that kind of production from Taylor with so many questions under center. Wisconsin’s offense, which scored 49 against Illinois in a snowy/sunny day in Madison last year, didn’t score many than 21 in any of its losses (five). Jack Coan, who started four games in relief of an injured Alex Hornibrook, didn’t light anything up last season. And freshman Graham Mertz put up some gaudy numbers (3,886 yards, 51 touchdowns) at Blue Valley North High School in Kansas last year, but we all know how freshman quarterbacks can be in the Big Ten.

The Illini’s backfield has the potential to be just as dangerous as Jonathan Taylor. And while the Badgers bring back their top three receiving targets (Danny Davis, Jake Ferguson and A.J. Taylor), none of them topped 521 yards.

The offense is good; it’s not spectacular. It’s something Illinois can keep up with.

But the defense? That’s where the Badgers probably win this one.

Wisconsin bookended the 2018 campaign with 34/35-3 wins and won every game except a 47-44 shootout at Purdue pretty handily — due to the performance of the defense.

In sophomore safety Scott Nelson, the Badgers have a future All-Big Ten performer. It won’t be easy for Wisconsin to replace T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly, who had 202 combined tackles last year, but that just means an opportunity for Zack Baun to step up in the middle at OLB.

Add in the 28th-best class nationally, according to 247, which includes a handful of three-star linebackers, linemen and defensive backs, and Paul Chryst is keeping the program moving forward.

So, maybe it’s a down year for Wisconsin. There’s still enough there for eight or nine wins and a bowl game.

And a road win at Illinois on Homecoming.