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Illinois opens as underdog against Rutgers in worst start since 1997

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The Illini haven’t picked up a win in over a year.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

One year removed from clinching bowl eligibility with a comeback win over Michigan State, the Illini are 0-3. It has been 365 days and counting since the program’s last win, and Illinois gets a chance to turn it around this week against Rutgers (1-2).

“We’re disappointed we lost three games,” said head coach Lovie Smith. “We realize how many games we have left to go in the season, but we’re also optimistic about our future, too. We know we’re a better football team, and we get the chance to prove that.”

The Illini are 4-2 all time against Rutgers, and 3-1 under Smith.

Since joining the Big Ten in 2014, Rutgers has finished last or tied for last in the Big Ten four times — but it’s Illinois sitting at the bottom of the Big Ten standings after three weeks. Not to mention, Illinois opens as 7-point underdogs to the Scarlet Knights who haven't been favored in a Big Ten game since 2014.

“We need to start playing our best football starting this week, and I think we will,” Smith said.

A sliver of good news is that the Illini will get players back who have been sidelined for the last two weeks due to contact tracing from the COVID-19 positives. Brandon Peters and Griffin Moore, the players who tested positive, can return to practice next week if medically cleared.

Those reinforcements include starting center Doug Kramer, kicker James McCourt, back-up quarterback Isaiah Williams and nine others.

The team will have an open QB competition this week between Coran Taylor, Williams and Matt Robinson, who is expected to be available as well. Smith seemed convinced as to who would start, but wouldn’t give anything away.

“It is pretty clear in my mind, who our QB is going to be.”

Nonetheless, the fifth-year head coach trusts his team’s ability to turn it around.

“I expect our record to say we’re better when we have our best guys on the football field.”