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Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini Preview and Prediction

Mike Riley

Mike Riley

The future of the Nebraska program remains in question as the Cornhuskers look to go 2-0 in Big Ten play to regain some confidence after a rough start to the season. Nebraska heads to Illinois for some Friday night football in the Big Ten in the first game since the removal of athletic director Shawn Eichorst. With a change at AD, Nebraska head coach Mike Riley could use a good showing in Big Ten play to prove he is the best coaching option for the football program in the years to come.

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The season may still be young, but Friday night's matchup between the Cornhuskers and Illinois already has a "must-win" feel to it for both teams if they are to keep the goal of a postseason bowl game in the fold heading to October. 

Nebraska at Illinois

Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 29 at 8 p.m. ET

TV Channel: FOX Sports 1

Spread: Nebraska -6.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Nebraska hits the road after turbulent week

The Huskers may have avoided a meltdown last week at home against Rutgers, but the school still made a change at athletic director to cast a fog over the future of the football program. Players likely will not be affected by that too much, but now will be the time to prove they can and want to play for Mike Riley as his job now goes under an increased amount of scrutiny. Perhaps going on the road on a short week will be good for the coaching staff and program as they were forced to turn their attention to a game away from home in conference play against a team that is also in a bit of a struggle as a program. Nebraska may not be able to afford to let this one slip away, otherwise, their bowl picture will look equally gloomy.

2. Tanner Lee remains Nebraska's starting QB

Despite an ugly start to the season with nine interceptions thrown, and three of those returned for a touchdown by the opponent, Lee still sits atop the depth chart to lead the Husker offense. The pressure is on to prove he is worthy of staying there because another sloppy game marred by turnovers will force Riley to inch closer and closer to making a change at quarterback with redshirt freshman Patrick O'Brien. But Lee may remain on the field for better or worse because Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf and Riley have said there is too much separation between Lee and O'Brien.

3. Young Illini defense going through growing pains

When Lovie Smith was hired to be the full-time head coach of the Illini last year, one area that was expected to be a reliable asset for him moving forward was the defense. That may still be a work in progress but it is worth noting how young this defense is. Five starters range from being redshirt sophomores to freshmen, and that includes three in the secondary. An experienced and talented passing attack can take advantage of that, as South Florida did two weeks ago with 304 yards and four touchdowns through the air.  

Final Analysis

Placing much faith in Nebraska to get off to a good start feels unwise in this one, even though Illinois is a rebuilding project in the Big Ten. Nebraska has struggled to get going three weeks in a row now from games at Oregon and home against Northern Illinois and Rutgers. The Illini may be the weakest of their opponents faced so far this season though, so Tanner Lee needs to avoid making mistakes early on. If Nebraska can avoid turning the ball over as often as they have been doing, they should manage to get out of Champaign with a win to go 2-0 in Big Ten play.

Nebraska's college football logo

Prediction: Nebraska 27, Illinois 20

— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.