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How winnable are Illinois’ games this season?

Which games are the toughest for the Illini? Which are must-wins?

NCAA Football: Illinois at Nebraska Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

The Fighting Illini football season gets underway in less than a month. The team is hoping to build off its best season in 15 years, going 8-5 and nearly winning the Big Ten West in 2022, though lacking a daunting schedule.

This season’s schedule looks a little tougher, but still quite manageable.

Which games can the Illini expect to really be hard? Which are 50/50 games? And which games are must-wins? Let’s find out:

Note: Games are listed in order of ease

Must-Wins Games

vs. Northwestern

The HAT needs to stay in Champaign for the third year in a row, as Illinois ends the season at home against a Northwestern team in disarray, that won just one game last season, had multiple players drafted, and has had multiple players enter the transfer portal following the firing of Pat Fitzgerald due to the athletic program hazing scandal, including its only four-star recruit. There was almost no excuse to lose this game before the firing; now there are none.

vs. Florida Atlantic

FAU went 5-7 last season in C-USA, and now moves up to the AAC, with a new hire in Tom Herman, former Texas coach, and new QB in Casey Thompson, who had some great games for Nebraska last season. FAU is a tougher opponent than Illinois had at this time last season in FCS Chattanooga, but it should still be an easy game. These are the games Illinois has to win now consistently to show it isn’t a bottom-tier Power 5 program anymore.

vs. Indiana

Last year’s game against Indiana was a disaster; a touchdown taken off the board for Illinois, running Chase Brown into a brick wall, multiple failed goal-to-go situations, and giving up a game-winning drive in the final two minutes. It was the Illini’s only early- to mid-season blemish. With the Hoosiers coming to Champaign this time, Illinois has to get revenge on one of the three worst teams in the Big Ten.

vs. Toledo

Toledo is a good team; the Rockets have a legitimate chance to win the repeat their MAC title, though they were 7-5 last year. In fact, Phil Steele ranked Toledo No. 22 in his preseason Top 25. By no means is this stating Illinois shouldn’t be worried about Toledo as a top-tier G5 opponent; they are a much bigger threat than Wyoming was last season. Still, a home-opener following a strong season, against a non-Power 5 team, under the lights, the Illini need to start strong and win this game. Too often they have struggled out of conference, but maybe, 2022’s 3-0 OOC record means they have turned that corner.


vs. Nebraska

Nebraska has a new coach in Matt Rhule, who led Baylor to an incredible turnaround before he flamed out with the Panthers in the NFL. He has done a good job recruiting so far, and is trying to get Nebraska at least back to where they were a decade ago, competing for Big Ten championships. Still, even with a solid transfer QB in Jeff Sims, the damage that was done by Scott Frost on the program needs time to be fixed. This won’t be a gimme game for Illinois, but it’s likely the toss-up I could’ve easily moved to must-win. In other words, Illinois should still win.

@ Kansas

Kansas returns most of its team from last season’s bowl appearance, including Heisman darkhorse QB Jalon Daniels. Lance Leipold has this program on the rise. While they went 6-7, most of their losses came with Daniels injured and were still close. This Friday night game will be a great indicator for both teams. Kansas will have more continuity, plus home-field advantage, but Illinois still should have an overall advantage in talent and coaching.

@ Maryland

Maryland might have the best QB in the Big Ten with Taulia Tagovailoa, who threw for 3,000 yards and completed 67% of his passes in 2022. They have a solid group of receivers to complement him, and they nearly upset Ohio State last season en route to a 7-5 record. This’ll be one of the bigger tests for an inexperienced secondary returning just one full-time starter in Taz Nicholson.

@ Purdue

Illinois has struggled mightily in recent years against Purdue, winning the cannon in just one of their last seven meetings. Considering the gut-punch last season’s loss at home to Purdue was, costing Illinois its top-25 ranking as well as the Big Ten West title, they have to come out extra motivated for this game, and they’ll need it, as Purdue replaces head coach Jeff Brohm with an old friend in Ryan Walters, and swaps Aidan O’Connell for Illinois transfer target Hudson Card (though his weapons won’t be nearly as good this season).

@ Minnesota

Bielema’s team has outworked PJ Fleck’s team in each of their two matchups so far. Minnesota also loses Tanner Morgan and Mohamed Ibrahim. But the road matchup, combined with Minnesota having experience at every position and getting QB Athan Kaliakmanis some gametime to end last season, won’t make this easy for a younger Illinois team.

Tough Games

vs. Wisconsin

Wisconsin is the favorite to win the Big Ten West. Luke Fickell comes over as the head coach after taking Cincinnati to the College Football Playoff, the first Group of 5 team to make it, with an undefeated regular season and winning the AAC. Fickell has Braelon Allen, a top RB in the country, and brings over Tanner Mordecai to alleviate the QB issues the Badgers have faced in recent years. The air raid may be coming to Madison. At least this game will be for homecoming, so the Illini can expect close to a sellout crowd.

@ Iowa

The primary competition to the Badgers for the division title according to most? The Hawkeyes. Even with one of the worst offenses ever, Iowa went 7-5 and nearly won the division. We already know its defense will be elite again; it always is. Now they bring in reinforcements on the offensive side of the ball, in QB Cade McNamara and TE Erick All. And outside of last season, Illinois has struggled mightily against Iowa. This is likely the toughest West game the Fighting Illini will have all season.

vs. Penn State

The hardest game of the season sees Illinois taking on a likely preseason top-10 team and Playoff contender in Penn State. We often say it too much, but after last season’s Rose Bowl win, combined with who Penn State retained, it really feels like this is their chance to win the Big Ten East and defeat one of or both of Ohio State and Michigan. Drew Allar is a five-star QB going into his second season. They have an elite RB duo of Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen. They have become a mini WR factory. They have expected first round picks on the OL in Olumuwiya Fashanu and on defense in Kalen King and Chop Robinson. The talent is there for top units on both sides of the ball, and we’ll see if James Franklin can take advantage. Illinois will have its hands full on Big Noon Kickoff.

Illinois will have an opportunity to win the Big Ten West in its final year of existence as we know it. Based on players and coaches retained, leaving, and joining, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nebraska have improved in the division, while Purdue, Northwestern, and Minnesota will likely regress. Illinois is probably somewhere in the middle, teetering on improving more than everyone except Wisconsin and Iowa, who they defeated last year and had a better record than. Bret Bielema could finally return to Indianapolis this season, even with some tough games on the schedule.