To reach a bowl game, Lovie Smith’s third iteration of the Fighting Illini must find a way to 6 regular season wins. Few games are seen as a sure thing, so let’s look at the schedule to see where an opponent might fall into a trap versus Illinois.
Trap games get talked about a lot, so let me define what most football folk describe as a trap game:
*a game seen as eminently winnable
*a game after a big emotional or rivalry contest
*a game sandwiched in-between big, seemingly more-important games
*a game immediately proceeding a big emotional or rivalry contest.
*a game after a team has scored a big upset win
Since the last item is impossible to predict, I won’t try to get into those, but a quick look at the immediate before and after games will give us a glimpse at what teams may “be looking past” this year’s Fighting Illini.
The first two ballgames of the 2018 campaign better be wins, and substantial ones, or else this season isn’t going to go the way any Illini fan hopes.
Illinois opens up September 1 at home vs Kent State, which has been one of the worst teams in the Mid-American Conference the last couple of years. Kent State has been so bad that they fired Paul Haynes as their head coach and replaced him with Sean Lewis, an assistant coach at Syracuse. Lewis had worked at Syracuse under Dino Babers, former Eastern Illinois coach, who has offenses lighting up the scoreboards, and has improved the Syracuse football fortunes.
It’s reasonable to feel that any new coaching staff is going to have their team fired up for the first game in their new tenure, but for Kent, this game looks and feels a bit different. Kent has, arguably, the toughest non-conference schedule in the MAC, and two weeks after playing Illinois, Kent State plays at Penn State and the following week, the Golden Flashes travel to Ole Miss.
Fans on the Kent State message boards (yes, it exists, and yes, it was pretty hard to find) are excited about the offensive potential behind Coach Lewis. They also view the opener at Illinois as the most winnable game amongst the Power 5 opponents they play. In fact, the message boards of every team Illinois plays points to an absolute or very likely W versus Illinois.
Western Illinois’ Leathernecks come to Champaign in week 2, and shouldn’t be much of a test. I still don’t see how a coaching staff can recruit to Macomb, Illinois, but WIU has been pretty good for their level the last couple of years, and this game will be their Super Bowl. They will come out plenty motivated to play, and this will probably be the let-down game for the Fighting Illini, as it’s hard for Big Ten athletes to get fired up to play a directional school from a lower level. Still, Illinois will have a two deep of superior athletes to anyone who is wearing purple and gold and should prevail easily.
Last year, Illinois started off with a pretty good MAC team in Ball State and a good Western Kentucky team, two opponents far better than the first two games of 2018. Illinois barely won each game, and probably should have lost to Western Kentucky, and the rest of the season was pretty dismal as Lovie Smith went with true freshmen and even had to work through dysfunction within the coaching staff.
Those true freshmen are now true sophomores, which should be the year we see the biggest improvement from them collectively. Fewer true freshmen will play this year, but the ones who do play will, quite honestly, be better than the players they are replacing.
Next up will be the University of South Florida Bulls, and this will be a nice test for Illinois. USF loses a good bit of talent from the 2017 version, which was one of the three best in school history. Coach Charlie Strong still has a solid All-American Conference team, but this USF squad will not be as good as the one last year. The game is a neutral site game, played in Chicago at Soldier Field, which, sadly, won’t be full of fired up Illini fans. If 45,000 show up and get loud, it will be a better home environment for Illinois than USF had vs Illinois last year, when maybe 23,000 fans showed up at Raymond James Stadium, and 7,000-8,000 of those were Illini fans.
USF plays Georgia Tech immediately before Illinois, and if the Bulls beat Georgia Teach or play very close, they could look past Illinois because of how USF dominated Illinois in the final 33 minutes of the game last year. Illinois needs this game for bowl eligibility, because this USF team would not fare well playing a Big Ten schedule. Because of the first two games being against inferior competition, look for this to be the first game where new Illini offensive coordinator Rod Smith does anything more than just vanilla offense. This game would qualify as a potential trap for USF, and I think Illinois prevails in a high scoring football game in Chicago.
On to Big Ten Conference play, where things get a lot more difficult for the Orange and Blue.
After the Illini off-week, the Illini get an unpopular Friday night home game on national cable TV against Penn State, featuring Trace McSorley, my choice as the best quarterback in the Big Ten. Penn State is very good and travels well. The week before the Nittany Lions travel to Champaign, they play Kent State (yawn), but the week after, PSU travels to Ohio State for the biggest game of their season. So, once again, this game could be a trap game for Penn State.
I’m not sure it will matter this year, because the two programs are in such a different place. Penn State has re-ascended to it’s place among college football elite, and Illinois is just peeking around the corner at the intersection of Wasteland Avenue and Mediocrity Drive. Still, if you’re drinking some inappropriately strong Orange and Blue Kool-Aid, if Illinois is still healthy at this point, receiving good quarterback play, and has a fired up home atmosphere, this could be a game that Penn State is struggling to win. The spectra of Ohio State looms very large on the horizon for the Nittany Lions, and these are college kids, not NFL machines. A strong showing here portends well for Illinois for much of the remainder of conference play.
Week 5 finds the Illini playing outside the state of Illinois for the first time, at Rutgers. Like Illinois, every Rutgers opponent circles this game as a win, but for the Rutgers fan-base, both fans are seeing this as a respite from a brutal Big Ten East schedule. And lest we forget, last year Rutgers laid a physical beat-down on Illinois in Champaign, so this will be a tough test for a still young squad.
Rutgers has Indiana the game before and Maryland the week after facing Illinois, so this is a point in the schedule that qualifies as must have for the Scarlet Knights. The Rutgers schedule is heavily back-loaded, so if they get off to some positive momentum against the likes of Texas State, Kansas, and Buffalo, they could be looking at bowl contention and feeling really good about themselves. Being on the road for the first time in conference is always tough, especially for new teams. This one could go either way, and this will be a true test of the young defensive linemen for Illinois. Rutgers wants to pound the rock, and if Illinois is paper mache up front, they could be in-store for a 3 touchdown beat down.
The Purdue game is really an interesting, potentially pivotal game on the 2018 slate. Second year Purdue coach Jeff Brohm is the hot commodity in college football coaching circles these days. He inherited a sneaky good situation in West Lafayette, and his predecessor, Darrel Hazel had done a lot of the heavy lifting in rebuilding the program. In fact, more than a few Big Ten observers felt Hazel got fired just before he was going to turn the corner for the Boilers. He had some good defensive talent coming back, and Brohm took a boat load of seniors, augmented them with graduate transfers and junior college transfers and had a nice season. Furthermore, Brohm has seen a real, substantial uptick in recruiting. Purdue has a shiny new, gorgeous football complex, and is positioned to be better in the next 7 years than they have been in the previous 7.
Purdue will be preparing for Illinois’ homecoming game during an off-week in their schedule, giving them a change to catch their breath. Prior to that, they will have played at Nebraska. The week following the Illini, Purdue gets Ohio State. To me, that’s a net neutral, as the off-week at that point in the season is a good re-set for a team. If Illinois can beat a Purdue team which loses most of their starting defense from a year ago, that’s exactly where we need them to be.
The following week, Illinois travels to Madison, Wisconsin to play Bucky Badger, a Bucky Badger team that is loaded, possibly as good as a Wisconsin team has ever been. This, of course, is Wisconsin’s homecoming, and even though Michigan was their opponent the week before, kids play hard on homecoming and this Wisconsin team will remember that Illinois played them quite respectably last year in Champaign. The best thing for Illinois to hope for is that Wisconsin either beats Michigan by 40, or Michigan physically beats up the Badgers, resulting in poor performance the next week.
The Maryland Terrapins are a mess right now, and it’s not the fault of any single player on the team. The 8th Illini opponent, a road foe, would probably be the second or third best talented team in the Big Ten West. They have some very talented football players, and were decimated last year by injuries.
The coaching controversy at Maryland is real, and pathetic. I believe Illinois will be seeing a DJ Durkin-less team, and that might actually be a good thing. Coming out of a toxic cutlure into a more appropriate collegiate football experience could bond this team and make them stronger, collectively. As much as those kids have endured with losing a teammate directly attributed to horrible, unethical coaching, they deserve a chance to move forward positively. Maryland plays Illinois for their homecoming in between tough games with Iowa and Michigan State. They’ll be hungry for a win during what’s very likely to be a very emotional weekend in College Park. Maryland is a bowl team playing Illinois’ schedule. Will Illinois be?
Illinois’ next opponent should be triple-circled on the schedule. First off, it’s Dad’s Day. Secondly, the Minnesota Golden Gophers represent a winnable contest. Finally, Illinois football fans really, really want to beat the uber-annoying PJ Fleck, head coach of those buck-toothed varmints. Fleck is an Illinois native, and has harvested some very good recruits out of his home-state. He will continue to do so until Lovie and Co put a resounding beatdown on him. Minnesota will be in a stretch of what they see as winnable football games, seeing Illinois after Indiana and before Purdue.
If Minny takes care of the cream-puff portion of their schedule, this Illinois game could be their sixth win. At least their fifth, with their best chance at 6 coming the following week. The Fleckster will have his team rowing on all cylinders to ruin Illinois’ day, and to keep the sleeping giant down. If they’re all rowing the boat in the same direction, it could be tough, but I see this game as certainly winnable for Illinois, but not because it’s any kind of trap game for the Gophers.
The Illini’ penultimate road game of the season takes them to Lincoln, Nebraska to play the beloved Cornhuskers in the 10th game of the Scott Frost era at Nebraska. To listen to Husker fans, it will be the 10th win of the Scott Frost era as well. Nebraska circa 2018 is NOT Nebraska circa 1995-1997, which is a good thing for Illinois. Illinois is playing NU after they play Ohio State and before they play Michigan State, so this could be a trap game for the Huskers. Let’s hope so. Of all the games on the Illini schedule, this game sets up most to be a trap game.
As I view the Nebraska schedule, this looks like it could be W #6 for the Huskers if they win the games they are supposed to. If so, they will be fired up as the final two games are significantly tougher, with Sparty at home and the hated Iowa Hawkeyes on the road. Still, a very young team that comes into the season razor-thin in quality depth pieces, could be banged up by game 10, and winning in one of the most hallowed halls of college sports is always a challenge.
The Illini then come home to face a tough, veteran football team in the Iowa Hawkeyes. I always misspell that nickname, leaving off the e at the end. So, I wish they were just the Iowa Buzzards, instead. Iowa has Northwestern before and Nebraska afterward. Iowa should be playing for positioning in better bowls by the time they roll into Champaign, and by this time of the year, injuries may matter, players emerging matter, and confidence has a chance to be a huge factor.
Still, beating Iowa will be a huge challenge this year. Maybe not in 2019, but for 2018, Iowa looks like a 9-point road favorite.
Finally, Illinois wraps up the regular season in front of 20,000 cold Northwestern fans. Northwestern should have their bowl eligibility wrapped up by this point, but Pat Fitzgerald always has his team ready to play the Illini. Northwestern has Minnesota the week before, so emotion won’t be a big deal here, unless Northwestern, somehow is still in contention to win the Big Ten West. And that could be true if they somehow find a way to beat Wisconsin.
Last year’s game in Champaign was ugly. A thorough beat-down and a bad way to start the long off-season.
Overall, I think Illinois could be in a position to benefit a couple of times from the trap game mentality. The three best scenarios, unfortunately include Penn State and Wisconsin, the two best teams on the Illini schedule. The third opportunity is Nebraska, following their beat down at the hands of Ohio State.
The delta for potential outcomes for the 2018 Illini is wide. One could foresee being 7-2 after 9 games. It could just as easily be 3-6.