Illinois believes its upset of Wisconsin last year showed how far the program has come. The oddsmakers are reminding the Illini how far they still have to go.
Even after beating a Wisconsin team that was favored by 30 ½ points last year, Illinois heads into Madison as a 19 ½-point underdog as the two West Division rivals prepare to open the pandemic-delayed Big Ten season Friday night.
Illinois took a big step forward last year in coach Lovie Smith’s fourth season by earning its first bowl bid since 2014, but the Illini are still searching for their first winning season since a 7-6 finish in 2011.
Wisconsin’s offense definitely isn’t the same as it was last year.
The Badgers lost two-time Doak Walker Award-winning running back and Indianapolis Colts rookie Jonathan Taylor as well as All-America center Tyler Biadasz and leading receiver Quintez Cephus from last year’s team. Redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz will make his first career start for Wisconsin after preseason foot surgery left returning starter Jack Coan out indefinitely.
Yet the Badgers still have enough talent in place to believe they can win the division for a fourth time in five seasons, whereas Illinois is still attempting to move its way up the standings.
Illinois stunned Wisconsin last year by showing the ball-hawking mentality that the Illini have adopted under Smith, a former NFL head coach and longtime NFL defensive assistant. Illinois had a Big Ten-leading 28 takeaways last season, including an interception against Wisconsin that led to James McCourt’s game-winning 39-yard field goal as time expired.
Illinois returns four starters on the offensive line. Kendrick Green, Doug Kramer, Vederian Lowe and Alex Palczewski have 125 combined starts.
Illinois will be counting on big contributions from plenty of transfers this season.
Some transfers to watch, with former schools in parentheses, include running back Chase Brown (Western Michigan), tight end Luke Ford (Georgia), wide receiver Brian Hightower (Miami), tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe (Southern California), defensive tackle Roderick Perry (South Carolina State) and defensive back Derrick Smith (Miami).
Game time tonight is 7 pm and can be seen on the Big Ten Network.