The 2021 college football season officially kicks off on Saturday with a Big Ten clash between Nebraska and Illinois. This game was originally slated to take place in Ireland, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced this contest to remain in the United States as a home game for the Fighting Illini. Motivation and intrigue won’t be lacking in this matchup. The Cornhuskers are hoping this game marks the start of a turnaround under coach Scott Frost, while Illinois wants to get new coach Bret Bielema’s tenure started off on the right path with a victory in conference play. Also, revenge is on the mind for Nebraska after the Fighting Illini won 41-23 in Lincoln last year.
Frost doesn’t necessarily enter 2021 on the hot seat, but there’s little doubt the pressure is building in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers have yet to post a winning record under Frost and finished 3-5 in the abbreviated ’20 campaign. In addition to a disappointing 12-20 mark through three seasons at his alma mater, Frost has struggled to get his high-powered offense on track, suffered a significant amount of roster attrition, and an NCAA investigation was recently launched into the program. Frost hasn’t reached make-or-break in ‘21, but on-field progress is clearly needed to lower the building pressure this fall.
Illinois hasn’t posted a winning season since 2011, but there’s a renewed sense of optimism with Bret Bielema at the helm. Bielema – a native of Illinois – is back in the Big Ten after spending the last three years in the NFL. He struck out as the head coach at Arkansas but went 68-24 at Wisconsin from 2006-12. Bielema certainly knows the landscape of the Big Ten and inherits a veteran roster just a year removed from making a bowl. The overall expectations are low after a 2-6 season, but with a few breaks, contending for five or six wins isn’t out of the question this fall.
Nebraska leads the all-time series 13-4-1. The Cornhuskers lost last season’s matchup but won the previous four versus the Fighting Illini.
Nebraska at Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 28 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Nebraska -7
When Nebraska Has the Ball
Quarterback Adrian Martinez holds the cards for Nebraska’s hopes of improvement on offense in 2021. The Cornhuskers managed only 23.1 points a game and 5.6 per play last fall, with Martinez losing snaps to Luke McCaffrey at one point. With McCaffrey transferring, Martinez won’t have to look over his shoulder. The California native started his career in Lincoln with a breakout freshman season but needs to regain that form after uneven performances in 2019-20. Martinez has rushed for more than 500 yards in each of his three years in Lincoln and posted a career-best 71.5 completion percentage last fall. He played sparingly in last season’s game versus Illinois but posted a monster effort in ’19, accounting for 328 yards and three scores through the air and 118 yards on the ground. Can Martinez regain his ’18 form? If so, Nebraska might have the pieces to show marked improvement.
While Nebraska’s offense has regressed since Scott Frost’s debut in 2018, some of the blame doesn’t rest solely on the quarterback. The Cornhuskers have had a revolving door of skill talent and inconsistent play along the line of scrimmage. How that supporting cast for ’21 shapes up is a question mark going into Saturday’s game. Last year’s leading rusher Dedrick Mills must be replaced, leaving true freshman Gabe Ervin, USC transfer Markese Stepp, and Rahmir Johnson to handle the bulk of the carries. While the rotation and development of this group is unknown, Illinois struggled mightily against the run (230.1 yards a game allowed) in ’20. The question marks about the supporting cast extend to receiver, where a handful of transfers in Omar Manning, Oliver Martin and Samori Toure will be counted upon for big contributions. How will the new faces around Martinez hold up in the ’21 debut?
New Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters plans to shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 approach, and the former Missouri play-caller has a lot of work ahead after the Fighting Illini gave up 34.9 points a contest last year. The cupboard isn’t bare, however. Linebacker Jake Hansen is one of the best in the Big Ten, and edge rusher Owen Carney can create havoc up front. With Nebraska likely working out some kinks in the passing game early, Frost and offensive coordinator Matt Lubick are likely to turn to the ground game. Illinois has to find ways to stuff the run and get the Cornhuskers into obvious passing downs.
When Illinois Has the Ball
Bielema’s roots in the Big Ten (and past experience at Wisconsin) provide some insight into how the offense might look in 2021. New play-caller Tony Petersen is a well-traveled coordinator, as he’s spent time at Appalachian State, Marshall, Louisiana Tech and East Carolina. Although Petersen and Bielema have a lot of work to do for an offense that averaged 20.1 points a game last year, eight returning starters and some transfers provide optimism for improvement.
The strength of the Illinois attack should be up front with an underrated and experienced offensive line, as well as a backfield that features a solid trio in Chase Brown, Mike Epstein and Chase Hayden. Brown ran for 540 yards and three scores last year, including 110 yards against Nebraska. As a team, the Fighting Illini pounded the Cornhuskers for 285 yards and four touchdowns on the ground last year. A similar approach on offense should be expected on Saturday, but the strength of Nebraska’s defense is its front, which features depth and experience along the line and at linebacker.
Similar to Nebraska, Illinois’ passing attack is likely to be a work in progress early in the ’21 season. Quarterback Brandon Peters brings steady play and experience, but the receiving corps doesn’t feature a ton of difference-makers on the outside. Tight ends Daniel Barker and Luke Ford are intriguing weapons, while Notre Dame transfer Jafar Armstrong and converted quarterback Isaiah Williams offer promise on the outside to go with Brian Hightower and Donny Navarro at receiver. If the Cornhuskers can slow Hayden, Brown and Epstein and force Peters to consistently win long-yardage situations through the air, that’s a winning formula for Frost’s team.
After an unusual 2020 season and a long offseason, some rust by both teams is to be expected on Saturday. Whichever team has better success running the ball to take pressure off the quarterback and passing games in transition is likely to come out on top. In last year’s matchup, Illinois won the turnover battle (five to zero), which helped lift the team to a 41-23 victory. Oddly enough, only one of the last four matchups between these two teams was decided by 15 points or less (2020). Turnovers, controlling the line of scrimmage and a big play or two are likely to decide this one. A small edge goes to Nebraska here.
Prediction: Nebraska 27, Illinois 24
Podcast: Week 0 Preview, Final Predictions, the Alliance and Latest Preseason News and Notes