Unlike the SEC and ACC, whose teams each have four non-conference games, Big Ten teams only get three. This basically ensures that Ohio State makes it into the CFP every year, but it hurts teams that are on the brink of making it to a bowl game.
Because the Fighting Illini only have three chances against non-Big Ten teams, they’re going to need to run the table if they want to make a bowl game this year.
I’m gonna go in reverse and start with the Illini’s third non-conference game. The game against Charlotte on Oct. 2 is the biggest must win game of the season. With an all-time FBS record of only 34-62, they’ve lost almost twice as many games as they’ve won. If the Illini lose to Charlotte, the season is as good as over. Good, now that’s out of the way.
In two weeks, Illinois plays Virginia in Charlottesville. This is a game that you’d really, really like to win. Virginia is a mid-tier ACC team, which in my mind puts them on the level of a mid- to lower-tier Big Ten team. This isn’t exactly a must win. However, Illinois absolutely needs to win two games in the three-game stretch of Virginia, Maryland, and Purdue to go bowling. That would mean the Illini would be 4-1, assuming that they beat UTSA on Saturday.
And that’s a lot to assume! UTSA went 7-5 last year and played No. 19 Louisiana-Lafayette well in a loss in the First Responder Bowl. They have two competent QBs, and RB Sincere McCormick was second in all of FBS with 1,467 rushing yards last year. The Illini go into Saturday as only a 5.5-point favorite against the Roadrunners, even at home after beating Nebraska. This is the big one, folks. This is another must-win game.
I’ll be honest with you. In my eyes, it’s still a long shot for Illinois to make a bowl game this year. But, despite the Big Ten’s reluctance to schedule more non-conference games, Illinois can get to six wins. The Illini showed us a lot in the win over Nebraska. If they can play like that in non-conference, maybe, just maybe they’ll go bowling in December.