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Illinois vs. Michigan Prediction: Undefeated Wolverines Host Skidding Fighting Illini

Illinois looks to end a two-game losing streak and stay in the Big Ten West race.

The stakes will be high this Saturday in Ann Arbor as the undefeated Michigan Wolverines look to remain perfect as they host the Illinois Fighting Illini, who have lost back-to-back games to start November.

The Wolverines and Fighting Illini are heated rivals on the basketball court. Not so much on the gridiron as the Wolverines have won each of the last five meetings in decisive fashion and lead the overall series 71-25.

Related: College Football Predictions for Every Game in Week 12

After rattling off six straight victories to get to 7-1, the Illini have since lost two straight games after falling to Purdue 31-24 on Saturday. With the loss, Illinois sits in a four-way tie atop the Big Ten West standings (at 4-3) and will head into Ann Arbor without their best player in running back Chase Brown, who suffered an injury late against the Boilermakers.

As for the Wolverines (10-0, 7-0 Big Ten), it was a ho-hum Saturday against Nebraska, running the ball 49 times as a team in a 34-3 victory. With precipitation coming down much of the game and the defense allowing just 146 yards of total offense, the game plan became simple — hand the ball off repeatedly to Heisman Trophy contender Blake Corum.

Illinois at No. 3 Michigan

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 19 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: ABC
Live Stream: fuboTV (Start your free trial)
Spread: Michigan -17.5
Tickets: As low as $48 on SITickets.com

When Illinois Has the Ball

Will Brown be available on Saturday? The fifth-year senior leads the FBS with 1,442 rushing yards, and there isn't a team more reliant on its running back than the Illini, as Brown also leads the country in rushing attempts (28.0) per game. Brown left last Saturday's game against Purdue late in the fourth quarter with an apparent ankle injury, walking slowly to the locker room with a visible limp. In Monday's press conference, head coach Bret Bielema stated that Brown is "trending in the right direction" direction towards playing on Saturday but will know more as the week goes on. Illinois has been without top backup Josh McCray for much of the year, so the Illini could be down to third-stringer Reggie Love III in the backfield should Brown be unavailable.

Illinois doesn't prefer to put the ball in the air, doing so just 42 percent of the time, but the Illini have been proficient with first-year starter Tommy DeVito, who transferred in from Syracuse over the offseason. He leads the Big Ten in completion rate (70 percent) but is eighth in the conference in yards per game (208.3). When DeVito drops back to throw, it's likely in the direction of star receiver Isaiah Williams, who has 64 receptions on 81 targets and five scores.

After last Saturday's dominant performance, the Wolverines have the nation's No. 1 scoring defense (11.2 ppg), No. 1 rush defense (72.7 ypg), and No. 1 total defense (232.8 ypg). All the more impressive considering what Michigan lost this past season from a personnel standpoint. Defensive end Mike Morris, who leads the team with 7.5 sacks, also left the game late last week with an injury but is expected to play Saturday.

When Michigan Has the Ball

The Wolverines will always have their No. 1 ranked rushing offense in the Big Ten to lean on weekly, but signs of progress need to be shown, and quickly, from J.J. McCarthy and the passing game if Michigan is to win this week and beyond. The sophomore QB is second in the conference with a 69 percent completion rate, but he has failed to complete more than half of his attempts in the last two games while finishing with fewer than 200 passing yards in five of the last six. That happens when you have horses like Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards in the backfield, on a team that runs the ball 62.3 percent of the time, but more is needed from the air with what is on the horizon. Illinois should provide a stiff challenge, ranking fifth in the country in passing yards allowed per game and seventh in pass play success rate defensively, per CollegeFootballData.

Of course, if the passing game isn't clicking, there's always Corum, the Heisman candidate ready and willing to tote the rock 30 times. He enters this game fourth in the country with 1,349 rushing yards while averaging 5.9 yards per carry with 17 touchdowns on the ground. As for running mate Edwards, head coach Jim Harbaugh said, "We'll see" earlier this week regarding his availability after he played just a handful of snaps against Nebraska last Saturday due to injury. The Wolverines will be challenged in the trenches as well against an Illini run defense that ranks sixth in the FBS in rushing yards allowed per game and hasn't allowed more than 150 in a contest since Week 1. Sophomore defensive lineman Jer'Zhan Newton leads the charge, ranking second in the conference in tackles for a loss and he has accumulated 5.5 sacks.

Final Analysis

All you have to do is look to last year for evidence as to how this game will play out. The casuals will suggest that this is a look-ahead spot with Ohio State on the horizon. Michigan was in this exact same spot last year when heading into College Park and played one of its best games of the season, routing the Terrapins 59-18. Same thing with Ohio State last year as the Buckeyes dominated Michigan State 59-7. This is not a look-ahead spot — it's a ramp-up game in preparation for what's to come next Saturday. Michigan cruises, setting up the play-in game next Saturday with the Buckeyes for a spot in the Big Ten title game (and potentially more).

Prediction: Michigan 32, Illinois 14

Podcast: Week 12 Preview, Predictions, and Picks Against the Spread + Reaction to CFB Playoff Top 25 Rankings

— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.

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