It's a new day for the Illinois Fighting Illini football program. New head coach Bret Bielema has brought a new sense of optimism to Champaign, which is sorely needed due to the fact that the team has posted just one winning season since 2014 (2019). Bielema's success as a collegiate coach, especially in the Big Ten, speaks for itself. And now he's hoping to take that success to turn around an Illini team that hasn't won a Big Ten championship since 2001 and has only made six bowl game appearances since then, the most recent coming in 2019. Illinois is 2-4 in those games.
To get back to the postseason, Illinois will once again have to swim the oceans of a very competitive Big Ten schedule. In addition to needing success against their divisional rivals (3-9 against the Big Ten West over the last two seasons, and have lost six straight to Northwestern), the Illini also will have to play Penn State again (they're just 2-5 against the Nittany Lions since 2010), renew their recent rivalry with Rutgers (3-1 against the Scarlet Knights since 2017), and take on a rebuilding Maryland team that has some talent. Illinois also has an interesting non-conference schedule of potential trap games. Bielema does have some returning players to rely on this season. So here's how the Illini's schedule breaks down.
Illinois Fighting Illini 2021 Schedule
Byes: Weeks 8 and 12
Week 1 – Aug. 28 vs. Nebraska (Champaign, Ill.)
This game was originally supposed to be played in Dublin, Ireland, but was moved back stateside due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. But regardless of where the game is played, it will still be an important one for the Illini. Since 2013, Illinois has gone just 2-6 against the Cornhuskers, while being outscored 275-183. Although Nebraska has had its own struggles, the Huskers have been a thorn in the Illini's side since joining the Big Ten. If Illinois wants to have an impact on the division race this year, defeating Nebraska is a must.
Week 2 – Sept. 4 vs. UTSA (Champaign, Ill.)
This will be the first-ever meeting between the Fighting Illini and the Roadrunners. Illinois is 5-4 all-time against Conference USA opponents. UTSA is coming off of a 7-5 season and bowl appearance so Illinois can't take the Roadrunners lightly.
Week 3 – Sept. 11 at Virginia (Charlottesville, Va.)
There have only been two meetings between the Illini and the Cavaliers (1990, '99), both of which came in bowl games. The Illini were victorious in both games by a combined score of 94-42. Illinois, however, has lost its last two games against ACC opposition, which came against North Carolina in 2015 and '16.
Week 4 – Sept. 18 vs. Maryland (Champaign, Ill.)
This will be only the second time that Illinois has locked horns with the Terrapins. In the first game back in 2018, the Terps sent the Illini home with a 30-point loss. Since joining the Big Ten in 2014, Maryland is 6-11 against the West Division.
Week 5 – Sept. 25 at Purdue (West Lafayette, Ind.)
These teams have split the last two meetings, leaving the all-time series record at 45-45-6. Illinois has won two of the last three games at Ross-Ade Stadium.
Week 6 – Oct. 2 vs. Charlotte (Champaign, Ill.)
This is another first-time matchup for the Illini. Since joining the FBS ranks in 2015, the 49ers are winless (0-4) against Power 5 teams. Illinois will look to keep that trend going.
Week 7 – Oct. 9 vs. Wisconsin (Champaign, Ill.)
This will be the first time that Bielema will face the Badgers since departing Madison to take over at Arkansas. Wisconsin hasn't skipped a beat since Bielema's departure, as the team has gone 76-25 since 2013. They've also won four Big Ten West crowns in that span, and gone 6-2 in bowl games. A win at home over the Badgers would be huge for both the head coach and his team. The Illini are just 1-9 against the Badgers since 2011.
Week 9 – Oct. 23 at Penn State (University Park, Pa.)
The Fighting Illini are 5-20 against the Nittany Lions and have lost their last four games at Beaver Stadium. Illinois hasn't defeated Penn State since 2014.
Week 10 – Oct. 30 vs. Rutgers (Champaign, Ill.)
Illinois has formed quite the rivalry with the Scarlett Knights since they joined the Big Ten back in 2014. The Illini are 4-1 in these conference clashes, outscoring Rutgers 147-89 in those matchups.
Week 11 – Nov. 6 at Minnesota (Minneapolis, Minn.)
The Illini have lost five of their last seven games against the Golden Gophers, with three of those happening at TCF Bank Stadium. Illinois hasn't defeated Minnesota on its own turf since 2009 and its last victory against the Gophers came in 2018.
Week 13 – Nov. 20 at Iowa (Iowa City, Iowa)
Illinois still leads the all-time series with the Hawkeyes 38-36-2, but Iowa has won seven in a row and 12 of the last 13. Kinnick Stadium is a tough place to play so the Illini have their work cut out for them.
Week 14 – Nov. 27 vs. Northwestern (Champaign, Ill.)
This will be the biggest game of Bielema's first season. The Fighting Illini have lost six straight to the archrival Wildcats, the longest such streak in school history. Northwestern is the defending Big Ten West champ but is going through a lot of roster turnover (only six starters projected to return) and will have a new defensive coordinator. Defense also will be critical for the Illini after giving up 411 yards and three touchdowns on the ground to the Wildcats in last season's 28-10 loss. Putting a halt to Northwestern's winning streak in the series would definitely be a step in the right direction for Bielema and Illinois.
— 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 can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of @IlliniFootball)