Lovie Smith enters a critical year of his tenure in Champaign
There are a lot of unknowns as the Illinois Fighting Illini football program prepares for the 2019 campaign. They're going through yet another change at quarterback, while recruitng and adding transfers have been extremely challenging, and they'll most likely be without their best defensive player this season. These are challenges that Lovie Smith and his staff will have to navigate as they look to make a change after four consecutive losing seasons (the last three were under Smith). But Illinois did flash some potential in 2018.
The Illini scored 30-plus points in six games last season, 3-3 at home, and finished 12th in the nation in rushing at 243 yards per game. Those are some positives to build off of as they look to finally turn the corner this season. Illinois has another loaded Big Ten slate (this year's conference opponents had a combined record of 60-55 last year) along with a potentially unpredictable non-conference schedule. Here is how the Fighting Illini's schedule ranks in terms of difficulty.
12. Aug. 31 vs. Akron
The Zips are just 2-29 all-time against the Big Ten, although one of those wins came last year at the expense of Illinois' arch-rival, the Northwestern Wildcats. But it's doubtful that lightning will strike twice as Akron's new head coach, Tom Arth, is moving up from the FCS ranks and has the tall task of improving a program that's posted two losing seasons in the last three years.
11. Sept. 7 at Connecticut
The Huskies haven't had a winning season since 2015, and they lost their last game against a Big Ten team (24-21 to Michigan back in 2013).
10. Nov. 2 vs. Rutgers
Illinois has gone 2-1 in their recent meetings with the Scarlet Knights, outscoring them 86-59 along the way.
9. Sept. 14 vs. Eastern Michigan
While the Eagles have won their last two games against Big Ten opponents (Purdue in 2018, Rutgers in '17) by a combined score of 36-32, Illinois has gone 3-1 against MAC teams at home since 2015 and has outscored them 117-82.
8. Oct. 5 at Minnesota
These teams have split the last two meetings with Illinois holding a 72-55 scoring advantage, including last year's 55-point outburst.
7. Sept. 21 vs. Nebraska
After squeaking out a 14-13 win over the Cornhuskers back in 2015, the Illini have since gone 0-3 against Nebraska. After scoring 54 points against Illinois last season in year one of the Scott Frost era, the Huskers will certainly be looking for more.
6. Oct. 26 at Purdue
The last time Illinois beat the Boilermakers was 2015. Since then the Illini have lost three straight to Purdue and have surrendered 109 total points to them in those games. David Blough is no longer Purdue's quarterback, but the combination of Elijah Sindelar throwing to wide receiver Rondale Moore will present just as difficult of a challenge for Illinois.
5. Nov. 9 at Michigan State
When the Illini last met the Spartans back in 2016, Illinois successfully defended their home field in a 31-27 upset. But this game will be in East Lansing where the Spartans have posted an 11-5 record at Spartan Stadium since that loss.
4. Oct. 19 vs. Wisconsin
Since the Big Ten's current division format (East-West) was installed in 2014, Illinois has gone winless (0-5) against Wisconsin as West rivals, they've given up 183 total points, and have surrendered 1,427 rushing yards to the run-oriented Badgers (with 17 touchdowns) in that same span. Wisconsin junior running back Jonathan Taylor (4,171 career rushing yards and 29 touchdowns) is back to lead the ground game for another season.
3. Nov. 23 at Iowa
The Hawkeyes are another West division opponent that Illinois has struggled with through the years. Since 2014, Illinois is 0-5 against Iowa. The Hawkeyes have gotten it done on both sides of the ball against the Illini, pouring on the points on offense and playing suffocating defense. During this stretch, the Hawkeyes have outscored the Illini 195-50, including a pair of shutouts in 2016 and '18.
2. Oct. 12 vs. Michigan
Jim Harbaugh is 1-0 against Illinois after dishing out a 41-8 pounding at Michigan Stadium back in 2016. Since then the Fighting Illini have continued to struggle while the Wolverines have gone 22-11 with three bowl game appearances. And with the Wolverines switching to an up-tempo, spread-based offense this season, the Illini most definitely need to find a way to contain Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson.
1. Nov. 30 vs. Northwestern
The Fighting Illini have gone 1-6 against their archrivals from Chicago since 2012. They've been outscored 252-153 as the Wildcats have outplayed them in every facet of the game. Beating Northwestern will give this Illinois team and the program as a whole, a much-needed confidence boost and something to build on for the future.
— 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.