It’s these types of weeks that I love about college football.
There are weeks when the favorites win every game with ease. And then there are weeks like this.
Of the top 25 teams, 6, 8, 9, 12, 17, 19, and 25 all lost on Saturday.
Of all teams in the Big Ten West, all teams that played FBS teams lost, except Illinois.
There is this aspect of chaos that makes college football special and Illinois has a chance to wreak havoc.
Illinois has three weeks to prepare for a big game against Wisconsin. There is a formula to beat the Badgers and the Illini have the ability to do it. The stretch against Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota doesn’t look as daunting as it should be.
The Illini have an honest chance to come into their second bye week with a 5-2 record, possibly 6-1.
Wisconsin and Iowa don’t have an offense.
We know about Iowa, but Wisconsin’s offense isn’t showing much spark. The offensive line isn't able to create the gaps that we are used to seeing. Against Illinois, I really don't see Wisconsin move the ball as well as they usually do.
Illinois has been incredible against the rush. The Illini give up on average 3.4 yards per play on 1st down, 3.8 yards on 2nd down, and 0.44 yards on 3rd down. With 1-3 yards to go, Illinois averages 1.33 yards.
Against the pass, Illinois is keeping opponents to a paltry 42.6 completion percentage, allowing only 1 TD through the air and 4 interceptions, leading the Big Ten and all Power 5 teams so far.
Iowa and Wisconsin don’t have particularly good air attacks, ranking 127th and 80th respectively in yards per game in 2022 and 109th and 120th respectively in 2021.
If I had to grade these stats so far, I’d say the Illini defense has a clear advantage over the offenses of Iowa and Wisconsin. The defense will definitely keep Illinois in the game.
They did last year against Iowa (Iowa had a defensive and a special teams touchdown in 2021 and Illinois didn't give up an offense TD), and they will this year against Wisconsin.
People really don’t realize how good the Illinois defense is. In the last 9 games, Illinois has allowed 2 passing TDs and 9 interceptions. Illinois’ run defense in 2021 left much to be desired, but in 2022, Illinois is allowing 37 yards per game and 1 TD against Power 5 teams.
Minnesota is largely untested.
One particular storyline I have grown to hate is how national media seem to fawn over the Fighting Flecks. The moment Iowa and Wisconsin went down this week, Minnesota instantly became the cinderella of all sports journalists.
The Gophers beat New Mexico State, a basement dweller in the Mountain West, and Western Illinois, an FCS team that is in the basement of the Missouri Valley Conference. Minnesota’s first test is this week against Colorado. I’d hold off any real judgment until then. I suspect the dominance Minnesota is showing won’t be the same against the Buffaloes.
Minnesota plays Illinois on Homecoming. With the intangibles that go with this game, it will be up for grabs. Mo Ibrahim will face one of the toughest defenses he will face this year. And if it’s anything like last year, Illinois should be able to stifle Tanner Morgan and limit his effectiveness.
Once again, I give the advantage to Illinois.
Illinois needs to get out of its own way
This is the biggest caveat, but one the Illini can overcome.
Let’s be honest. Illinois survived a 4-turnover game against Virginia. Teams like Wisconsin and Minnesota convert more than 3 points off 4 turnovers if given the chance.
This is where coaching comes in. I truly believe that Bielema, Ryan Walters, and Barry Lunney will have the team ready to play and beat division rivals.
This team isn’t like teams of the past. They don’t overthink plays, they shake bad plays off, learn from them, and come back stronger. The offense moves the ball much better and forgets the last interception, fumble, or missed red zone opportunity. The defense has the offense’s back.
Illinois has a chance to regain that confidence in 9 days against Chattanooga. Play a clean game against the Mocs and that swagger Illinois needs to walk into Camp Randall and beat Wisconsin is back.
The time for revenge is ripe. This is where the Illini can embody chaos.
Wisconsin beat Illinois 24-0 in Year 1 under Bielema. Bielema’s homecoming revenge game is on nobody’s radar. With Wisconsin looking weaker than usual, the opportunity is ripe.
The 63-0 Iowa loss is still fresh in our minds. Illinois has an actual chance to beat Iowa at home this year, and I truly believe Illinois can do it.
Minnesota will be gunning for a Big Ten title. Sports media will be all over the Gophers if they come into this game 5-1. Illinois can shock the world and play itself into the Big Ten West champion conversation.
With the chaotic nature of college football, this Illinois team has the chance to wreak havoc.
The 7-5 record is still alive. Hell, I won’t be surprised with 8-4.