Two of the Big Ten West's most surprising teams of 2015 will line up to face one another on Saturday, as the No. 23 Iowa Hawkeyes play Homecoming host to the Fighting Illini of the University of Illinois.
A quick review of the records might indicate that both these teams have surpassed even the wildest of their own expectations. And to a certain point, that would be an accurate assessment. But there's no question that the quality of the wins for these teams has come against very different levels of competition.
Illinois holds a 38-30-2 advantage in the series, which began in 1899.
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Illinois at Iowa
Kickoff: 12:01 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Iowa -11.5
Three Things to Watch
1. What does Illini QB Wes Lunt do?
Illinois junior QB Wes Lunt has been spectacular at times, but not as often as he needs to be for the perpetual underdog Illini to move much farther up the Big Ten West food chain. For the season he's 123-215-3 for an average of 244.4 yards per game. The bad news is that places him in a tie for 47th among all FBS schools. The good news is, it also puts him 9 spots ahead of Iowa's CJ Beathard, who has proven he can also be spectacular when called upon to do so.
2. Can Iowa reignite its offense?
The Hawkeyes have surprised nearly everyone but themselves en route to a perfect 5-0 start to the season. But other than the 62 point output against North Texas, haven't done anything too spectacular on offense. Head Coach Kirk Ferentz has, however, shown a newfound willingness to open up his passing offense, and has thrown a few new wrinkles into a game plan that had grown stagnant and predictable in recent seasons. And last week's victory over a talented Wisconsin team was about as old school defensive of a game as any. But when push came to shove, it was the Hawkeyes landing the only “7” of the game as they ended Wisconsin's run of no touchdowns allowed for the season.
3 Which Illini team shows up?
The Illini almost always perform well in the non-conference portion of the schedule. But just as consistently flop when Big Ten teams come calling. The 2014 version of the Illini started the season 3-1 before Big Ten action began. And then the wheels once again fell off the Illini's wagon, landing them 14th out of 14 Big Ten teams in nearly every single defensive category by season's end. In the only true test of their abilities so far this season, North Carolina dominated the Illini on their way to an eventual 48-14 offensive pounding by the Tar Heels, once again demonstrating Illinois's defensive weaknesses against Power 5 caliber teams. Overall, the Illini have not beaten a Top 25 team on the road in their last 9 tries, dating back to a 2007 win over Ohio State.
Prior to August, very few people knew the name Bill Cubit, but with his team's 4-1 start after the unexpected announcement of his promotion to Head Coach in August, he's already on track to win more games in his first season than the 2014 version of the Illini. He's done it in a surprisingly confident fashion, and his team has followed suit. But until he wins more Big Ten games, the numbers so far don't mean a thing.
On the other side of the ball, besides a few hiccups the last few seasons, the Hawkeyes very seldom regress as the season gets more intense. As long as they can avoid a mental let-down after an emotional win on the road against the Badgers in their first Big Ten opening day win since 2009, this game doesn't look to be the “trap game” many might expect for Iowa as they prepare to head back on the road to face yet another surprising Big Ten West opponent next week in Northwestern.
Prediction: Iowa 34, Illinois 9
— Written by Robert A. Boleyn, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network and a native Iowan currently based in Southern California. Boleyn attended both the University of Iowa and UCLA, and is a former contributing writer for The Daily Iowan and a die-hard Hawkeye. Follow him on Twitter @BoleynRobert.