Illinois is hoping to start the Bret Bielema era off with a bang. His first challenge? Winning a game in conference against Nebraska.
Bielema is coming in with a roster than can be described as talent deficient. Illinois hasn’t recruited that well in a while, and it leads back to the fact they haven’t had a winning record since 2011. In fact, only 4 Power 5 schools had worse recruiting classes in 2021.
Meanwhile, Nebraska has managed to maintain a strong recruiter despite their struggles. They haven’t had a winning season since 2016, but they managed to land the 20th best recruiting class in the country last year.
How much does that matter though?
Illinois are 7 point underdogs in their Week 1 matchup. That’s the smallest margin for an underdog in Week 1. So, oddsmakers do have some faith that the Fighting Illini can do exactly what they did last year, beat Nebraska.
Still, it isn’t that much faith. Nebraska is given -263 odds, or an implied 72.5% chance to walk away with a victory. Illinois is only given +225 odds, or an implied 30.8% chance to pull off the upset.
So, they’re the best underdog, but that isn’t saying much.
Illinois has historically struggled against Nebraska. They've only have 4 wins in 18 games played against them.
The first was in 1923 when Illinois managed a 24-7 victory. Illinois was the National Champion that year going 8-0 and outscoring opponents 136-20 all year led by Red Grange. So, the fact Nebraska even managed 7 points was a huge deal.
The second was in 1924 when Illinois squeaked out a 9-6 victory. Illinois continued their dominance from the year before with a victory over Nebraska to start what would end up being a 6-1-1 season.
The third was in 2015 when Illinois eked out a 14-13 victory. That was one of the comebacks of the season, as Illinois managed to score 14 points in the fourth quarter, including a touchdown with just 10 seconds left for Geronimo Allison to cap off the victory.
The last one was in 2020 when Illinois stomped Nebraska 41-23. Illinois’s rushing attack led the way with both Chase Brown and Mike Epstein rushing for over 100 yards.
Illinois probably loses this game on paper. A new head coach, a new scheme, not the best recruiting class, and probably a less talented roster. However, the game isn’t played on paper.
Illinois beat Nebraska last year. Now they have the element of surprise with Bret Bielema’s new scheme being unveiled for the first time. That could be exactly the thing that proves to be the reason why Illinois defeats Nebraska twice in a row for the first time since the 1920s.