2 stars. While the Illini men's basketball team will be must-see TV this fall and winter, the same cannot be said for the football squad. At least right now. And with no nonconference games to pad the record, Lovie is going to have his work cut out for him to get Illinois back to a bowl game.
You just don't get many easy weeks in the Big Ten. Nebraska had to rally to beat Illinois last season in Champaign, Illinois, trailing by 14 points on three different occasions before prevailing 42-38. This season, the Illini will be even stronger. "I talked about 15 freshmen starting three years ago," fifth-year Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "Those are the seniors now. We're older now. We have great leadership at every position." Most important, Illinois has a returning starter at quarterback in Brandon Peters, who led the team to a bowl game last season (a 35-20 loss to California in the Redbox Bowl).
This sets up to look like last year's game — a close and high-scoring affair. One stat to keep in mind: Illinois was fourth nationally in turnovers produced last season. If Nebraska turns it over too many times, it'll be in trouble. The guess here is the Huskers will handle their business and win by a score similar to last year's game.
The main cast
QB Peters. More than anything, Peters gives the Illini stability at a key position. He threw for 1,885 yards and 18 touchdowns (with eight interceptions) last season after transferring in from Michigan.
WR Josh Imatorbhebhe. A USC transfer, Imatorbhebhe averaged 19.2 yards per catch in 2019, ranking third in the Big Ten and 20th nationally. His nine touchdowns were fifth in the league.
P Blake Hayes. Hayes is a legitimate weapon, having led the Big Ten in punting at 44.6 yards per kick on a league-high 77 attempts. Illinois has to win the field position game if it's going to survive a Big Ten-only schedule, and Hayes will play a huge role in that.
O24, at Wisconsin; O31, Purdue; N7, Minnesota; N14, at Rutgers; N21, at Nebraska; N28, Ohio State; D5, Iowa; D12, at Northwestern.