Surely a lengthy offseason leading up to the Wisconsin Badgers' return meeting with the Fighting Illini has the Badgers especially eager to take to Camp Randall Stadium. This Friday night encounter sets the tone for the early and truncated race to the Big Ten West crown, particularly for a Wisconsin bunch that came one possession away from winning the Rose Bowl almost 10 months ago.
For Illinois, the Illini have a primetime crack at repeating the biggest win of the Lovie Smith era and building off the positive momentum of the program's best season since Smith's arrival.
Illinois at No. 14 Wisconsin
Kickoff: Friday, Oct. 23 at 8 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Wisconsin -19.5
When Illinois Has the Ball
Reggie Corbin stole the show in last year's 24-23 Illinois win over Wisconsin. He's gone, leaving Jakari Norwood as the likely A-1 running back for the Illini. Norwood appeared sparingly in his first two seasons in Champaign, but he should fit into coordinator Rod Smith's scheme smoothly. As a product of the Rich Rodriguez coaching tree, Smith has a track record for unlocking ball carriers' potential. And Norwood could have some Noel Devine-like to show off toting the ball this season.
Highly touted recruited-turned-Michigan transfer Brandon Peters returns at quarterback after an unspectacular 2019 campaign. Another year working with a deep wide receiving corps — even if some of it was interrupted by a pandemic — should result in an uptick in Peters' production. Josh Imatorbhebhe and Donny Navarro need to replicate their big-play contributions from last year's Wisconsin game to give this year's Illini a chance.
The big question is Illinois' handling at the line of Wisconsin's front seven. Isaiahh Loudermilk has Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year potential at defensive end, and with the latest in the Badgers' long line of stud linebackers, Jack Sanborn, Wisconsin could have the conference's most fearsome pass-rushing tandem.
When Wisconsin Has the Ball
Jonathan Taylor left Madison after the 2019 campaign as arguably the most under-appreciated player in recent college football history. Certainly Badgers faithful appreciated the three-year star, but on a national level, the only running back since Troy Smith to eclipse 2,000 yards twice was shamefully neglected.
Wisconsin's offense in 2020 may function as written by Joni Mitchell: You don't know what you got 'til it's gone.
History suggests the Badgers will be fine at running back, however. Just as the program successfully replaced James White, Montee Ball, and Melvin Gordon III previously, it may be able to do so again with Nakia Watson. No matter if it's Watson or someone else managing most of the workload on Friday, he'll be operating behind an outstanding offensive line
An Illinois defense that ranked third in the Big Ten with 95 tackles for a loss in 2019 is tasked with replacing its most prolific contributors in Dele Harding (now a student assistant coach on Smith's staff) and Oluwole Betiku Jr. The new-look Illinois front seven has a tall task contending with Logan Bruss, Cole Van Lanen, and the rest of an outstanding Wisconsin offensive line.
Motivation will be of no issue for Wisconsin after last year's loss. Couple that with Wisconsin's penchant for destroying season-opening opponents — a two-point defeat of LSU in 2016 was the sole Badgers win decided by fewer than 31 points since 2013 — and the atmosphere is rough for another Illini upset.
What's more, prior to last year's win, Illinois had not played Wisconsin to a single-digit-point decision since the Illini's 2007 win. Those past results have no bearing on this season's matchup, though they do speak to the gap between the two programs for most of the past decade.
Prediction: Wisconsin 35, Illinois 14
Podcast: Week 8 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.