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Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini Preview and Prediction

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Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys has quietly guided the 2016 edition of the Golden Gophers to within one game of bowl eligibility before the end of October. After dropping its first two Big Ten games of the season, Minnesota has turned it around with back-to-back wins over Maryland and Rutgers. With a game againstIllinois this weekend and another against Purdue the following Saturday, it's a safe bet that the Gopher faithful will be making postseason travel plans.

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Then there's Illinois.

The Lovie Smith era hasn't exactly gotten off to a magical start, but that was partly to be expected. Smith inherited arguably the least talented club in the Big Ten West and will need some time to lay a foundation in Champaign. A win at home against Minnesota this weekend would be a good start.

Minnesota at Illinois

Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 29 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: BTN
Spread: N/A

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Three Things to Watch

1. Can Illinois Make Mitch Leidner Uncomfortable?
Minnesota's senior quarterback has a good grasp of the offense and a bevy of talented skill players around him. Thirteen different Gophers have caught passes this season and two Minnesota running backs have combined for over 1,100 yards. All Leidner has to do is get the ball to his guys. The question is whether or not Illinois gets enough pressure and penetration to force him into making a mistake with the football. The Illini have been average in the sack department this season, logging 17 on the year.

2. Can the Illini set the tone on the ground?
Minnesota is in the top third of the nation in run defense. On the other side of the ball, Illinois averages 5.4 yards per carry -- good enough for 19th in the nation. Head coach Lovie Smith's best chance of winning this game is to lean on his talented trio of running backs and keep Minnesota's offense off the field.

3. The Big Play from Minnesota
The Gophers have a couple of game-breakers who can change the proceedings in an instant. Running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks have both proven to be scoring threat on the ground and through the air. They'll cause Smith and defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson plenty of stress. The Illini will need to be on their toes when either one goes in motion or lines up as a receiver.

Final Analysis

Despite the difference in records, this game has to potential to be a good one. Each team needs the win for different reasons, and it should be a back-and-forth affair all afternoon. In the end, the difference will be the Minnesota skill players. They simply create too many mismatches for the Illini to overcome. One of those mismatches is likely going to lead to a big play that ends up being the game-winner. Things are going to get better in Champaign for Lovie Smith and Co., but it'll be one more notch in the loss column for the Illini on this day.

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Prediction: Minnesota 24, Illinois 20

— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.