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Illinois’ last — and best — chance to win the West

This is it.


Steve Braun (Thumpasaurus) is a long-time TCR writer. He predicts the Illini to go 8-4 (6-3) and win the West. Here’s why.

Look, I know. I was there. I know what 2008 and then 2009 were like. I remember the juice for 2015 before Tim Beckman got fired. I KNOW, OKAY?

I know how terrifying it can be to try to wrap your head around two straight winning seasons for Illinois football. I know that they traditionally win exactly five games the season after they get to 8 or more. Trust me. I was there.

HOWEVER! Here are three factors I can’t ignore:

  1. A very favorable conference schedule
  2. No clear West contender that has an obvious advantage over Illinois.
  3. Virtually everyone who left was a star, but Illinois still returns plenty of pieces.

For point 1, I refer you to the schedule. Toledo makes me nervous and I have us losing on the road to Kansas, but none of that matters in the division standings. Penn State, Maryland and Indiana are our crossover matchups. I don’t believe we’ll beat Penn State and honestly, Maryland is pretty solid and might have the recipe to beat an inexperienced secondary at home. Penn State at home will have incredible hype if we can start 2-0.

The road games are at Maryland (problem), Purdue, Minnesota and Iowa. There’s no reason Illinois can’t split those. Purdue will be in a transitory state especially on defense, and if Ryan Walters still spooks you, look at the first half of the season for the 2021 Illini. They didn’t find their stride until November. Purdue hosts us in September.

Regular Iowa and Diet Iowa are road games where Illinois will be a slight underdog and the over/under will be below 40. I truly believe Illinois can split those. Iowa’s offensive problems went deeper than the quarterback position last year when we beat them with virtually a whole game of Art Sitkowski, and I’ll believe Minnesota beats Bielema when I see it.

Home games against Nebraska, Wisconsin, Indiana and Northwestern should be wins for the Illini. I am on record as not believing in the 2023 Badgers for a pretty specific reason you can read about here. Nebraska won’t be as bad as Matt Rhule’s first Baylor team was, but he’ll have his eyes on the future and he’ll mostly be evaluating guys (and scouting track meets in Texas). The Indiana game from last year cannot happen again without a full-blown riot disrupting the end of the game (at least six points disallowed, though I counted 9-10), and Northwestern has been a 5-touchdown laugher each of the last two years (and that was with its head coach).

Let’s look at point 2. Iowa has the easiest schedule of our rivals and has the only West schedule easier than ours. They’ll start 3-0, as all of its conference opponents are shells of their former selves (Iowa State will be hopeless this year with all the players they have suspended). A road game at Penn State is its toughest crossover; otherwise they have Rutgers and Michigan State at home. Iowa only has to play three true conference road games because Northwestern is giving up a home game to get embarrassed at Wrigley Field again. The other two road games are Wisconsin and Nebraska.

Minnesota has Michigan and Ohio State on the schedule, as well as high-variance Michigan State. Crucially, they get Iowa on the road in a series P.J. Fleck has still never won. Even if Wisconsin were as good as they’re supposed to be, they still have Ohio State on their schedule and end at Minnesota.

Point three is simple: Illinois basically returns the whole front 7 from last year’s defense and one of the starters from the secondary, and the offensive line returns a lot of experience. As we know from the Lovie Smith years, experience isn’t everything. Sometimes guys just stay bad. However, last year’s offensive line was better than expected given the experience lost. This supports the idea that we have position coaches that add value to the players on the roster, especially at offensive line. Chase Brown will be difficult to replace, but the run game should still be functional and a quarterback with Luke Altmyer’s pedigree should be able to do what Tommy DeVito did. The injury to Matthew Bailey might slow down the secondary, but the guys that replace Brown, Witherspoon and Martin have all had solid game reps. More importantly, the scheme is not going to change on either side of the ball. I expect Aaron Henry to keep things pretty similar as he takes over the DC duties from Walters.

So here’s how I think this is going down: we hold off Toledo, lose to Kansas and fall at home to Penn State. Iowa starts 3-0, Minnesota beats Nebraska but stumbles against Eastern Michigan as Athan Kaliakmanis continues to adapt to the speed of the game (if you don’t think that’s possible, you haven’t watched many of PJ Fleck’s non-conference games) and then gets lit up by UNC, Wisconsin starts out 2-2 as Purdue solves its new defense, Nebraska is down a game early and Northwestern is hopeless. Penn State rises to the top 5 after knocking off Ohio State and heads into the Michigan game 9-0.

Meanwhile, Illinois dispatches FAU and then takes it to Purdue on the road as their offense is not the well-oiled machine it was with redshirt-senior Aidan O’Connell under center. Hudson Card is talented, but there’s something to be said for reps in the system. Illinois handles Nebraska but can’t put down the best Maryland team since they joined the Big Ten and heads into Homecoming with two conference losses. This has them tied with Wisconsin, who Iowa has just defeated. It puts them ahead of Purdue, who loses the next two after the Illini game (@ Iowa, Ohio State) and Nebraska, whose first three conference games are against 8+ win teams from 2022. Minnesota’s lone loss to Michigan sets them up nicely here.

Minnesota conquers Iowa as Illinois pummels Wisconsin. Northwestern is going to lose out at this point. Wisconsin will lose the next game to Ohio State for its fourth Big Ten loss, while a road game at Michigan does Purdue no favors. Nebraska is up and down but can’t keep pace after starting 0-3. Illinois evens up the race by beating Minnesota on the road in a defensive struggle with fewer than 30 points, so it’s down to Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota.

Each team wins its Week 11 games, but Illinois falls at Kinnick Stadium. Minnesota gets lit up by the Buckeyes to pick up their third conference loss. We have unlocked The Bad Ending, as 9-2 Iowa heads into Lincoln to take on 5-6 Nebraska with a path to Indianapolis a virtual certainty.

Matt Rhule, however, has been preparing for this specific game and stuns the Hawkeyes at home to earn Nebraska’s first bowl bid since 2016. Minnesota retains the Axe by sending Wisconsin to a 6-6 final record. Up 35-0 against Northwestern, Bret Bielema comes up with a fitting tribute to Pat Fitzgerald by dialing up two more touchdowns with two-point conversions to create a 51-0 final score. All for you, #51! ‘Cats against the WORLD!

Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota are all 6-3 in conference play and have 1-1 records against the other two. The next tiebreaker is divisional record, which is 4-2 for Iowa but 5-1 for the other two. By virtue of having won the head-to-head, Illinois goes to Indianapolis.

Who officiates their title game against Michigan? This is important.

The biggest thing Illinois has going against them in the schedule is that the two opponents most likely to finish with exactly 8 wins and thus be in position to win the West are Minnesota and Iowa, making those games the most important. Both are on the road. The Berting Illini have, however, been fantastic on the road through two years.

I’ll see you in Indy.