Bret Bielema’s first few games won’t be cupcakes. As the 2021 team finds its rhythm, it could get off to a sloppy start. I think the outcomes of the following games ride a lot on the Week 0 battle against Nebraska this week. Fumble the opener and Illinois could be looking at 1-4 going into October. The non-conference slate has a few winnable games at home and a trip to Charlottesville.
UTSA Roadrunners - Sept. 4
2019 Record: 4-8
2020 Record: 7-5 (Postseason: First Responders Bowl)
Head Coach: Jeff Traylor (2nd Season)
Total Offense/Passing Offense/Rushing Offense: 47/90/19
Total Defense: 47
In Jeff Traylor’s first season, he led the Roadrunners to a hot start, blowing through the Conference USA schedule. Of the two ranked teams that UTSA played in 2020, they only lost by 7 points in each game. UTSA should not be looked over as they are a contender for the C-USA title and return 21 starters to the lineup.
The UTSA offense is led by dual-threat QB Frank Harris who had 1630 yards and 12 TD’s through the air and added 528 yards and 9 more TD’s on the ground. The 9th ranked rushing attack was headlined by Sincere McCormick who had 1467 yards on the ground and 11 TDs.
The entire roadrunner defense returns. The defensive unit is fairly strong, and in 2020, it was 29th in the nation in TFL, 72 in the nation in sacks, and 58th in the nation in opponent 3rd down conversions. With that many returners on the defense, I expect these numbers to improve.
As much success as UTSA had last year, they were 0-2 against ranked teams, 2-4 on the road, 0-5 against FBS winning teams, and 2-3 against non-conference teams. Much like UTSA, Illinois also returns a lot of starters. This is a classic example of a trap game. If Illinois comes out to play as it did against UConn in 2019, this will be a tough loss in Bielema's record and in the eyes of many Illinois fans.
The spread is currently set to favor Illinois at 6.5 points and I am not certain Illinois will win by more than a TD.
Virginia Cavaliers - Sept. 11
2019 Record: 9-5 (Loss in the ACCCG to Clemson, Loss to Florida in the Orange Bowl)
2020 Record: 5-5 (1-3 vs. ranked teams)
Head Coach: Bronco Mendenhall (4th Season)
Total Offense/Passing Offense/Rushing Offense: 42/38/66
Total Defense: 96
Personally, this date has been circled on my calendar for months. This is a big weekend, that carries a lot of playoff implications #11 Oregon vs. #4 Ohio State, Michigan vs. #20 Washington, #18 Iowa vs. #9 Iowa State, and obviously, Illinois vs. Virginia. Any college football fan should have this date circled. From College Gameday to #Pac12AfterDark, you can be glued to your seat. Enough about that, let’s talk Illini football.
Bret Bielema gets his first non-Big Ten Power 5 opponent. Illinois has a chance to set the Bielema era in the right direction with a win over a Virginia team that went to the ACC championship game just two years ago.
The Virginia offense is led by third-year QB Brennan Armstrong, who threw for 235 yards a game, good for 35th best in the country. Armstrong added 18 TDs through the air with 11 interceptions and led Virginia in running the ball for 552 yards and 5 TDs. Clearly, Armstrong does everything on the offense but the Illinois shift to the 3-4 defense should be able to keep him in check. Virginia also has to replace 3 of their 4 receivers with more than 3 receptions a game, which is a daunting task for any team. I would pay most attention to Ra’Shaun Henry who is their biggest downfield threat in 2021. Henry had 7 catches for 209 yards and 4 TDs last year.
Last year, Virginia ranked 103rd in scrimmage plays of 10 yards or more, 124th in 20+ yards, 125th in 30+ yards (For comparison, Illinois ranked in the 70’s). On the flip side, Virginia ranked 11th in Sacks/Game, 26th in TFL/game, and 66th in scoring defense. So how does this break down? Virginia doesn’t have a good secondary. They can be great in the trenches, only allowing 41% on 3rd down conversion, but if they get beat, the play has the potential to break loose. Against run-heavy teams like Virginia Tech and Louisville, 1st and 4th in the ACC respectively, Virginia allowed >5 yards a carry. Illinois not only has terrific line play but also a rush attack that should be tested by the time the Illini travel to Charlottesville.
Virginia has the edge right now and the spread is set at -11. I want to see how Illinois plays against Nebraska before I pass any judgment.
Charlotte 49ers - Oct. 2
2019 Record: 7-6 (Lost Bahamas Bowl to Buffalo)
2020 Record: 2-4
Head Coach: Will Heely (3rd season)
Total Offense/Passing Offense/Rushing Offense: 81/69/74
Total Defense: 75
The 49ers had a crazy season with 7 games getting canceled in 2020. This season doesn't get easier for the Niners. The offensive line lacks depth, the running back room lacks experience, and their QB, while having stunning numbers in CUSA, was still sacked 16 times in 6 games last year.
While the 49ers have a group of wide receivers that can get open, it is unknown how they will be against a Power 5 team. On defense, Charlotte was one of the worst teams against rushing teams.
In its only game against a Power 5 opponent, Charlotte lost 53-19 against Duke. Similar results should be expected in October against the Illini.
I will be happy if Illinois comes out of the non-conference matchups 2-1. But as I said before, a lot lies in the type of team we will see this Saturday. Will it be the Lovie Smith team that rolled over on its back and lost 66-0 at home against Iowa or will it be the Brandon Peters-led team that willed a comeback on the road at Michigan State?
The identity of this team has yet to be known. But this weekend will reveal a lot about how this season will go. It’s game week. LFG.