The Illinois Fighting Illini finished 5-7 last season and missed the postseason by just one game. This is actually an accomplishment considering the numerous injuries COVID-19 cases, the lack of depth those issues created, and the bouts of inconsistency that this team endured across the board.
Head coach Bret Bielema kept his team focused in Year 1, and now he looks to turn that focus into success in Year 2. And when you consider the new faces that will inject new blood into the program, the returning faces that will provide leadership, and that Bielema always delivers results in the second season everywhere he's coached, all signs point to Illinois turning things around.
But before Illinois can think about going bowling, the Illini need to work their way through the 2022 schedule first. It's a schedule that presents yet another grind of Big Ten opposition and a non-conference slate that will present some challenges. Winning six of these 12 games will put Illinois in a good position come December. Here is now the upcoming season breaks down.
Illinois Fighting Illini 2022 Schedule
Byes: Weeks 4 and 9
Week 1 - Aug. 27 vs. Wyoming (Champaign, Ill.)
This season opener will mark the first-ever meeting between the Fighting Illini and the Cowboys. Illinois is 5-4-1 all-time against the Mountain West but hasn't played against the conference since 2010 (lost to Fresno State). Wyoming is 1-19 all-time against the Big Ten, with their only win coming against Wisconsin back in 1986. The last time they lined up against a Big Ten opponent was in their season-opening loss at Iowa in 2017. This game will be a good test for both teams to start the season.
Week 2 - Sept. 2 at Indiana (Bloomington, Ind.)
Illinois has a 45-24-2 advantage over Indiana, but the Hoosiers have won each of the last three meetings by a combined score of 107-76. However, these teams have split the last four games in Bloomington. The Illini will begin their conference schedule against a hungry Hoosier team that's looking for redemption after posting their first losing season since 2018 last year. Indiana has also gone 9-7 at home since 2019, while Illinois has posted a 7-8 road record during that same stretch.
Week 3 - Sept. 10 vs. Virginia (Champaign, Ill.)
It's a rematch from last year after the Illini went to Charlottesville and got pounded 42-14. The Cavaliers totaled 556 yards of offense, forced two Illinois turnovers, and never trailed over the course of 60 minutes. Illinois will have to face quarterback Brennan Armstrong again, who accounted for 436 total offensive yards and threw five touchdown passes that day. Some consider Armstrong a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Week 5 - Sept. 22 vs. Chattanooga (Champaign, Ill.)
The Illini will conclude their non-conference schedule with a de facto NCAA Tournament rematch. On the hardwood, Illinois edged Chattanooga 54-53 in the tournament's opening round in March. Perhaps the Mocs would like to give a bit of payback via the gridiron. There's only one problem with that idea: Illinois has never lost to an FCS team (20-0). And this will be the first-ever meeting on the football field between these two programs.
Week 6 - Oct. 1 at Wisconsin (Madison, Wis.)
The Illini have lost 10 of their last 11 games against the Badgers, including each of their five trips to Camp Randall Stadium. If Illinois wants to have any chance of getting to a bowl game, and perhaps make some noise in the Big Ten West, it needs to end this trend against Wisconsin. Bottom line...
Week 7 - Oct. 8 vs. Iowa (Champaign, Ill.)
While the Illini still lead this all-time series 38-37-2, the Hawkeyes have won eight in a row in this rivalry. The record for consecutive wins in this series is the 11 straight that Illinois won between 1942 and '52. Another win for Iowa would tie the series record and put it one step closer to tying the record for the longest winning streak. Iowa is the current Big Ten West champion, and if Illinois can break its losing streak to Kirk Ferentz and Co., it could put a dent in the Hawkeyes' hopes of another division crown.
Week 8 - Oct. 15 vs. Minnesota (Champaign, Ill.)
Since 2007, Illinois has posted a 5-9 record against the Golden Gophers. The Illini are 2-3 against Minnesota during the P.J. Fleck era. This is another key opponent that Illinois must defeat this season if they truly want to turn this program around.
Week 10 - Oct. 29 at Nebraska (Lincoln, Neb.)
For once, Illinois has a positive trend against a conference opponent. It has won two straight against the Cornhuskers by a combined score of 71-45. And with Scott Frost on the hot seat to finally deliver on his promise of making Nebraska a winner again, Illinois can add to his woes by defeating the Huskers on their home field.
Week 11 - Nov. 5 vs. Michigan State (Champaign, Ill.)
And just like Nebraska, Illinois also holds a two-game winning streak over the Spartans. Their victory at home in 2016 was the first, and one of the few, signature victories of the Lovie Smith era. Then the upset in East Lansing in 2019 gave the Illini bowl eligibility. They wound up going to the RedBox Bowl that season. A win over MSU in 2021 would show that Illinois is truly getting back on track.
Week 12 - Nov. 12 vs. Purdue (Champaign, Ill.)
The Illini wraps up its home schedule against a Boilermakers team that's beaten them in five of the last six meetings. Three of those losses happened at Memorial Stadium. Purdue showed drastic improvement last year after back-to-back losing seasons in 2019 and '20. The Fighting Illini want to have that same type of improvement, and defeating Purdue will help them get there.
Week 13 - Nov. 19 at Michigan (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
Illinois wraps up the regular season with two road games, arguably its most difficult games on the schedule. First, they start with a trip to the Big House, where they haven't won since 2008 (0-3 since then). Under Jim Harbaugh's guidance, the Wolverines have won 13 of their last 17 home games and are 16-6 against the Big Ten West since 2014. In fact, they have a four-game winning streak going against the West. Getting out of Ann Arbor with a win is no easy task for any team, but if the Illini can pull off the upset, it will be a huge boost for this program.
Week 14 - Nov. 26 at Northwestern (Evanston, Ill.)
Using its home-field advantage last season, Illinois finally broke its historic six-game losing streak to the arch-rival Wildcats. But now the challenge will be to not only win consecutive games against NU for the first time in a decade (2010-11) but also to win in Evanston for the first time since 2014 (0-3 since then). This will be the game that the Illini faithful will have circled on their calendars.
Podcast: Takeaways From Spring Games at Auburn, Texas A&M and Clemson, Transfer News, Early Spreads, and Looking Back at the Memorable 1998 Season
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who 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.