Okay, so hear me out. I’ll be the first to say that a bowl game isn't out of question. The way Illinois is playing right now, it’s the tough physical style of play that we want in Bret Bielema Bully Ball. Illinois has four games left in the season and it won’t be a cakewalk, but the Illini have a chance to build real momentum heading into the offseason and 2022.
Oct. 30 vs. Rutgers
Illinois’ defense has kept its last five opponents to 24 or fewer points, and that likely continue against Rutgers when the Scarlet Knights visit for Dad’s Day on Saturday.
In the last four games (albeit three of those against top-15 teams) Rutgers has scored no more than 14 points. The 2021 matchup of Illinutgers will be one of a movable force against a stoppable object. Rutgers will be coming off a bye week, while Illinois is coming home after a statement win against No. 7 Penn State.
This game has all the signs to be a 17-10 snooze fest.
Nov. 6 @ Minnesota
This one is interesting. Minnesota is playing to win the Big Ten West. Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin all play each other, and if Minnesota goes 2-0 in that stretch, the Gophers earn a trip to Indy. Will Illinois win on the road? Probably not. But Illinois is trending upward on offense and defense and will have another chance to get to .500 and be in the drivers’ seat for a bowl game. Both teams have something to play for and will be a tough physical matchup.
BP coming back helps if he got his mojo back after throwing the winning pass against Penn State.
Nov. 20 @ No. 11 Iowa
Somehow, Illinois’ offense is better than that of No. 11 Iowa. Iowa is eerily similar to Penn State, in that the Hawkeyes rely on taking away the ball. However, in October, Illinois ranks tops in the conference and 11th in the nation in rushing offense (9th and 74th through the first two months). This includes the 13 attempts, 26-yard game against Wisconsin. From what we saw two weeks ago, Iowa is beatable.
If this success carries over to November... well... I hope you can see where I am taking this.
Nov. 27 vs. Northwestern
Historically, this game has been a cold, fanless affair. The game in Evanston has more Illinois fans than when the game is in Champaign. Northwestern has been having a historically bad year with a team that can’t move the ball as well as they usually do. Illinois could be playing for a bowl game or more in the last game of the season.
SO WHAT ARE WE GETTING AT??!?!?!??
I want to show two excel tables. First is the SP+ win probability and second is something Illinois can do.
Illinois has a 73% chance to win 4 or 5 games, improving on the Vegas line of 2.5 wins for the Illini. Illinois also has a 1% chance to win 7 games and an 8.2% chance of making a bowl. Hmm... Interesting.
Now, here is where the rest of the season gets a bit nuts.
Illinois has some control over its destiny. Let’s put the caveat that Illinois has to win out. If they don’t do that, the above doesn’t work. But if they do, it opens up a lot for the Big Ten West crown.
First, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have to go 1-1 against each other. With the way the teams are playing, this is a possibility. We will know this outcome before Week 13. Iowa and Minnesota can win the rest of their games (but lose to the Illini) and Illinois will still be in the drivers’ seat in Week 13.
Second, Wisconsin has to lose one of its games against Nebraska, Rutgers, and Northwestern. Nebraska is trending upwards and probably has the best chance to help the Illini.
If all this happens (keyword: if), Illinois has an outside chance at the West title and a trip to Indy. Stealing the game at Penn State just made the rest of the season a whole lot more interesting.
Don’t you wish they beat Maryland and Purdue!
Gotta take that 1% as a ray of hope and just ride.