The Illinois Fighting Illini are back for more in 2020. The Illini came into the 2019 season with very little expectations. And after the team struggled with a 2-4 start, many thought it would be business as usual in Champaign. But then Lovie Smith's team put it all together and put together a 4-2 finish to the regular season to earn their first bowl invite since 2014. Illinois lost 35-20 to California in the Redbox Bowl but it didn't take away from the Illin's other accomplishments in what ended up being a turnaround season.
Smith will have a mixture of both new and returning talent available to him for this coming season. And the Illini are not only looking for consecutive bowl games for the first time since 2010 and '11, but they also want to shake up the Big Ten West. Here is the schedule that they must navigate in order to do that.
Illinois Fighting Illini 2020 Schedule
Bye: Week 4
Week 1 — Sept. 4 vs. Illinois State (Champaign, Ill.)
The Illini have never lost to the Redbirds (3-0) and, in fact, are 29-0 all-time against FCS teams. This will be the first meeting with ISU since 2009.
Week 2 — Sept. 12 vs. Connecticut (Champaign, Ill.)
This will be just the second-ever meeting between the Illini and the Huskies. Last year's game in Storrs was a memorable one as the Illini overcame an early 10-0 deficit to go home with a 31-23 win. The Illini defense held UConn to just a field goal in the fourth quarter.
Week 3 — Sept. 19 vs. Bowling Green (Champaign, Ill.)
While this will be the first time that the Illini have tangled with the Falcons, Illinois is 19-6 all-time against the Mid-American Conference and has won three of their last five games against MAC teams.
Week 5 — Oct. 3 at Rutgers (Piscataway, N.J.)
Illinois has won two straight against the Scarlett Knights by a combined score of 76-27. The Knights were held scoreless for four of the eight quarters that have been played over the course of those two games thanks in part to six takeaways by the Illini defense.
Week 6 — Oct. 10 at Nebraska (Lincoln, Neb.)
The Illini are just 1-6 against Nebraska since the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten in 2011 (3-13-1 all-time). Their only win against them was in 2015, and the Huskers have outscored Illinois 252-142 during that span.
Week 7 — Oct. 17 vs. Purdue (Champaign, Ill.)
Last year's win over the Boilermakers snapped a three-game losing streak in the series. Illinois' all-time record against Purdue now stands at 45-44-6.
Week 8 — Oct. 24 vs. Minnesota (Champaign, Ill.)
The Illini have lost seven of last their nine games against the Golden Gophers. And this year's matchup will be especially challenging as Minnesota is coming off of their best season in school history.
Week 9 — Oct. 31 at Wisconsin (Madison, Wis.)
Last year's encounter at Memorial Stadium was the signature game of Illinois' turnaround season. The Illini overcame a 23-14 deficit and outscored the Badgers 10-0 in the fourth quarter, and capped things off with a game-winning, 39-yard field goal from James McCourt to pull off the biggest upset of the Lovie Smith era and take eliminate the Badgers from the College Football Playoff picture. This year's rematch, however, will be at Camp Randall Stadium. A place where the Illini haven't won since 2002 (0-7 since then).
Week 10 — Nov. 7 vs. Iowa (Champaign, Ill.)
While Illinois leads this all-time series 38-35-2, they've lost six in a row to the Hawkeyes (last won in 2008). But this year's matchup could go a little differently. The Illini seem to be turning the corner on their rebuild, while the Hawkeyes are breaking in new talent at a handful of positions.
Week 11 — Nov. 14 at Indiana (Bloomington, Ind.)
The Fighting Illini have gone 4-4 in their last eight games against the Hoosiers, they have a 246-194 scoring edge in those eight games, but they haven't played Indiana since 2017. This will also be Illinois' first trip to Bloomington since 2013.
Week 12 — Nov. 21 vs. Ohio State (Champaign, Ill.)
Illinois' 2019 home finale could also be their most difficult game of the season. Illini fans fondly remember Nov. 10, 2007. That was the day that the Illini went to the Horseshoe in Columbus, and pulled off one of the biggest upsets in program history by defeating the Buckeyes to secure a spot in the Rose Bowl. But since then the Buckeyes have won nine in a row by an average of more than 24 points per game. Ohio State is the three-time defending Big Ten champions and will be favored to do again this year as well as make it into the College Football Playoff to get a shot at another national title. The Buckeyes will not overlook their trip to Champaign.
Week 13 — Nov. 28 at Northwestern (Evanston, Ill.)
Payback will be on the minds of the Illini when they make the trip up north to face their archrivals for the 114th time. Last year's game against the Wildcats was there for the taking. NU was 2-9 and had multiple players injured. But the Wildcats gashed Illinois for 378 rushing yards alone, dominating the Illini 29-10 in Champaign. Illinois has now lost five in a row to Northwestern, its longest streak ever in this series, which the Illini lead by a slim (55-53-5) margin.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of (@IlliniFootball)