Illini open and end their season at home against Big Ten East heavyweights Ohio State and Penn State
Last month the Big Ten announced that it was limiting its football teams, including the Illinois Fighting Illini, to a conference-only schedule for this year. This week the league revealed its modified, 10-game schedule for the 2020 campaign. The idea is to limit travel in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19. This is one step for the Big Ten this year, but there are other logistics that still need to be worked out.
The Illini are coming off of their most wins and first postseason appearance since 2014. Lovie Smith's team is looking for a repeat performance, or better, in 2020. These changes do not erase the challenges that Illinois will face in order to achieve their goal. Penn State will be Illinois' 10th conference foe this fall, and the Illini will have an equal number of home and away games. Here are the pros and cons of the Illini's modified schedule for this year.
1. An additional bye week
All Big Ten teams will get two bye weeks this season. Illinois will get theirs on Oct. 3, and Nov. 14. And for the first time since 2010, Illinois will not have to play on Thanksgiving weekend. The conference has decided to have a bye week between the regular-season finale (Nov. 21), and this year's Big Ten Championship Game (Dec. 5), although both of these dates are subject to change. The conference was intentional in building in some flexibility given all of the uncertainty.
2. Balanced schedule
Illinois will have three of their first five, and two of their last three games at home at Memorial Stadium. This is a good thing because the Illini won't be overwhelmed with travel.
3. Potential primetime game
Although the television schedules haven't been made official yet, I think it's safe to assume that the Illini's Sept. 3 opener (a Thursday night) at home against Ohio State will be under the lights. If so, it'll mark the first time that they've played a weeknight game since they hosted Penn State on a Friday night back in 2018.
1. Difficult home games to start and end the season
Opening against Ohio State and finishing against Penn State is a lot to ask of any team. Especially since these were the two teams at the top of the Big Ten East in 2019. The Buckeyes have won each of the last three Big Ten titles, and are expected to contend for the College Football Playoff again this season. While Penn State is riding the wave of its Cotton Bowl demolition of Memphis to close out the '19 campaign. The silver lining in all of this is that the Illini will have home-field advantage in both games.
2. Crucial division stretch
After traveling to Indiana (Sept. 19), Illinois will embark on a stretch of five straight Big Ten West opponents (vs. Purdue, vs. Iowa, at Northwestern, at Wisconsin, vs. Minnesota) to close out the divisional portion of their schedule. Those five weeks will be a grinder for sure, but those games will also help sort out the divisional race.
3. Road trips to Northwestern and Wisconsin in consecutive weeks
Speaking of that five-game stretch, the back-to-back road games at Northwestern (Oct. 17) and Wisconsin (Oct. 24) will be the most difficult of those games. This year's matchup with Northwestern was moved because of the new schedule, and the Illini have lost five straight to the Wildcats. A sixth straight loss would set a new record in the series. As for Wisconsin, the Illini haven't won in Madison since 2002 (0-7 since then).
— 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.