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Illinois needs a new rival — Purdue could fit the bill

Purdue could be the rival the Illini have been searching for.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Rivalries are crucial to the sport of college football. They make regular season games feel like championships, they make winning better and losing worse.

For Illinois football, rivalries will be a tough thing to come by. Northwestern is the in-state team and rival the Illini play for rivalry week, but that just feels like an automatic win for the next couple of years. That is not what a rivalry should feel like. The Braggin’ Rights against Mizzou game is coming back a handful of times from 2026-35, which will be big for rivalry purposes, but until then, there could be a different team taking its place.

The rivalry with Purdue right now feels like the classic original Big Ten sibling rivalry, no different than the rivalry with Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, etc. That could all easily change very soon.

Why It Works

Purdue v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Location

These two schools are less than two hours away from each other, meaning there is definitely a good amount of overlap when it comes to fanbase. Also, they both take some sort of claim to having a pretty big fan base in Chicago.

The Programs

These two programs are very similar when it comes to history and success. Purdue has a better all time record, but Illinois has more Big Ten titles. Purdue has only made one more bowl game than Illinois, its 21 to the Illini’s 20. It also feels like both programs are in similar spots. Relatively new head coaches and both programs have the potential to make a run at the Big Ten west every single year. They are even similar in terms of value. The Wall Street Journal ranks Illinois as the 49th-most valuable brand, while Purdue is just behind at 54th.

Recent History

What makes this more of a rivalry in recent years is how competitive the games have been. Purdue has won three of the last four, including the last three, but they have all been one-score games, and Illinois claimed its win 24-6. Every game has been a nailbiter and last year’s game had a lot on the line, eventually deciding the winner of the Big Ten West.

The Coaches

Of course the similarities mentioned before make these two teams a good matchup, and a competitive one year in and year out, but it does not necessarily make them rivals. The coaches make it personal however. Ryan Walters left the DC job for Purdue, which is not only a Big Ten rival, but one in the west, and also one that will be in Illinois’ pod when the new scheduling system comes around.

I was wholeheartedly going to root for Ryan Walters and was even hoping he would get a good head coaching job before he left, but a coach leaving for a program this close is a good start to a brewing rivalry. Also, the coaches are deciding to make it personal. We have already seen banter from both coaches on Twitter, and a close recruiting battle for 4-star Luke Williams. What makes this battle even tougher is that Purdue stole the Illinois product from North Naperville. Recruiting battles are good for rivalries.

The Benefits

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 12 Purdue at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Television

Because of how big the game was last year, and how there will be former coach drama, the first game of this proposed rivalry will be a primetime 6:30 p.m. NBC game. The bigger the rivalry gets, the more primetime games Illinois gets to see.

It’s More Fun

Football is better against a team you hate, that’s just a fact. The lack of a real competitive rival right now is disappointing. This has felt for a while like a program who doesn’t have one big rival, and it would be so much better to have a midseason game to look forward to for bragging rights reasons.

Illinois will never be Purdue’s top rival because of IU, but that doesn't mean it can’t be any bigger of a deal than it is now. Plenty of teams have multiple top rivals, the first coming to mind and probably the most relevant being Michigan’s biggest rival being Ohio State, and in a pretty close second is Michigan State.

There was a big Twitter debate during the Illinois-IU basketball game between the fanbases, where Indiana fans did not think they were rivals, and even poked fun of the fanbase for thinking so. It’s a silly argument to me. College fanbases are very regionalized for most teams, and multiple rivals will appear for each team. Just because a team has a top rival, doesn't mean they can't be rivals with another.

So why not have some fun and add more stress and competitiveness to a game we will play every year for a long time.