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Iowa Hawkeyes vs. Illinois Fighting Illini Preview and Prediction

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Things got very real, very fast in the race to the finish line for the 2016 college football regular season as three of the top four teams lost last Saturday. To the surprise of many observers, Iowa was back in the thick of that excitement for the first time all season as they reached back to 1985, and beat No. 3 Michigan 14-13 on a walk-off field goal.

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Illinois didn't fare nearly as well as against its top-10 opponent, No. 7 Wisconsin, however. The Badgers treated the Illini to an old fashioned beating behind the woodshed in Madison, in the form of a 48-3 romp.

This will be the 72nd meeting of the teams, with Illinois holding a 38-31-2 advantage in a series that dates back to 1899. Iowa has won seven of the past eight meetings and is 3-1 in its last four visits to Champaign.

Iowa at Illinois

Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 19 at 12 p.m. ET

TV Channel: Big Ten Network

Spread: Iowa -9.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Offensive malaise on both sides of the field
Both these teams enter Saturday's matchup in the bottom of the Big Ten offensive rankings. Iowa checks in at No. 11 in scoring (25.1 points per game) with Illinois just a few spots behind at No. 13 (21.3 ppg).

Last week against Michigan, Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard was just 8-for-16 for a grand total of 66 yards. Fortunately, running back Akrum Wadley put the offense on his shoulders, as he accounted for 167 all-purpose yards (115 rushing, 52 receiving) with an assist to an improved Hawkeyes offensive line.

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2. Hawkeye letdown or meltdown?
Iowa had big hopes at the start of the season as it eyed a repeat Big Ten West Division title. Those hopes began to crumble early, however, in a series of devastating home losses (North Dakota State, Northwestern, Wisconsin) in which the expected strengths of the team turned into liabilities.

Suddenly, however, Kinnick Stadium's pink locker room once again got the best of Jim Harbaugh and his Michigan Wolverines, albeit in a real offensive snoozer.

Hawkeyes have lost just one game on the road this season (Penn State) though, and Champaign, Ill., may be as close to Indianapolis as they will get this season. And for that reason alone, the Illini ought to be ready for a game played from the opening kickoff all the way until the final seconds tick off the clock.

3. Illini’s red zone efficiency
While Illinois’ offense hasn’t enjoyed much success in any one statistical category this season, there has been a small glimmer of hope when the Illini have been able to get the ball into scoring position.

Illinois ranks second to last in the Big Ten in total red zone opportunities (26), but it has converted 21 of those into points. That scoring percentage of 80.8 places them a respectable seventh in the conference. The Illini have a 2:1 touchdown-to-field goal ratio (14:7) inside the red zone, and for the season sophomore kicker Chase McLaughlin has been pretty reliable, connecting on 12 of his 16 attempts (75 percent, tied for sixth in Big Ten).

Of course it all comes down to how generous Iowa’s defense is should Illinois find itself in the red zone. And to that end, the Hawkeyes enter this game ranked third in the Big Ten in red zone efficiency (71.9 percent). Once again, points could be hard to come by for Illinois.

Final Analysis

As long as Iowa can avoid a mental letdown after an emotional home win over No. 3 Michigan, this game doesn't look to be the “trap game” many might expect with the Hawkeyes’ annual Heroes Trophy matchup on Black Friday against the No. 18 Nebraska Cornhuskers looming. At least not on paper.

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But Illinois has had very little to celebrate this season, and the Iowa game is always big in Champaign. So could there be an upset brewing?

Not likely this time around. The Hawkeyes have been inconsistent for much of the year, but even in tough losses have shown improvements. This game might just be the showcase of offensive firepower they've been wanting in Iowa City as they gear up for a big home battle next Friday.

Prediction: Iowa 33, Illinois 10

— Written by Robert A. Boleyn, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network and a native Iowan currently based in Southern California. Boleyn attended both the University of Iowa and UCLA, and is a former contributing writer for The Daily Iowan and a die-hard Hawkeye. Follow him on Twitter @BoleynRobert.