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Illinois Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on Their Schedule

Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith

Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith

Rebuilding in any sport at any level is a difficult task to say the least. And for the Illinois Fighting Illini football program, this rebuild seems more painful than others. Especially since Lovie Smith has only managed a 5-19 record despite his coaching credentials.

Illinois Fighting Illini RB Mike Epstein

But heading into his third season as head coach, things are looking brighter as the program is making progress in recruiting, roster stability and upgraded facilities. Illinois should start to look better in 2019, but for now here are how their toughest games rank for what should be another grind this fall.

12. Sept. 8 vs. Western Illinois

This will probably be the only guaranteed win for the Illini this year. Illinois has gone 15-0 (including wins over WIU in 2007 and '015) against the Football Championship Subdivision since 2002. It will however be a close game as the Leathernecks are one if the more improved programs in the FCS.

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11. Sept. 1 vs. Kent State

The Fighting Illini also will have an advantage in this season opener at Memorial Stadium. Since 2004, Illinois has posted a 7-2 record against the Mid-American Conference, including a 2015 win over the Golden Flashes. But at the same time KSU is not to be underestimated. Although they haven't had a winning season since 2012, the Flashes have the ability to move the ball both on the ground and through the air.

College Football Rankings: Kent State

10. Oct. 27 at Maryland

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The Fighting Illini and the Terrapins have never played each other on the football field, even though the Terrapins joined the Big Ten in 2014. That all changes this year. Both teams will come into this game evenly matched to some degree as Maryland is rebuilding in its own right. The Terps have only had two winning seasons (2014, '16) since joining the conference, compiling a 13-24 record in Big Ten games in that time.

9. Oct. 6 at Rutgers

The Scarlett Knights are another team that has struggled to adjust to the Big Ten (5-22 record since 2014). But they've also played tough against the Fighting Illini as they've split the two meetings between them, with Illinois winning in 2016. This game probably won't be pretty.

College football rankings: Rutgers

8. Sept. 15 vs. South Florida (in Chicago)

Last year's beatdown in Tampa by the hands of the Bulls was the start of what would ultimately be a season-ending, 10-game losing streak for Illinois. While some of those USF playmakers from last year's game have either joined the ranks of the NFL or graduated, the Bulls are still a well-coached team that will contend for the American Athletic Conference championship once again. This edition will take place in Solider Field where the Illini last played in 2015.

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7. Nov. 3 vs. Minnesota

Since the Big Ten adopted the division format in 2011, Illinois has struggled against the Golden Gophers with a record of 1-5. From 2011-16, Minnesota outscored Illinois 141-78. But with P.J. Fleck in the process of trying to turn the program around, Lovie Smith brought the Illini to the Twin Cities last season and only lost by a touchdown (24-17). This year we'll find out if Illinois can narrow the gap even more.

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6. Oct. 13 vs. Purdue

The Boilermakers are another divisional foe that the Illini have struggled against since 2011. They've posted a 2-5 record even though the games have been close (outscored by just five points total) due in large part to their inability to stop the Boilermakers' pass-happy offensive attack. Lovie Smith's defense will be tested again as it looks to slow down Jeff Brohm's high-octane offense.

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5. Nov. 10 at Nebraska

When these two schools met in Champaign last year, Illinois collapsed in the second half against the Cornhuskers' pro-style offense. This time, the Illini will have to contend with Scott Frost's fast-paced spread offense that helped UCF go undefeated in 2017. On top of that, this game will be played in Lincoln so Lovie Smith and company will have their work cut out for them.

Nebraska's college football logo

4. Nov. 24 at Northwestern

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Illinois has lost four of the last five games to its archrivals from upstate. What makes this year's season finale even more difficult is that the Wildcats are coming off of their third 10-win season under head coach Pat Fitzgerald and consecutive bowl game victories for the first time in school history. NU is expected to contend for the top spot in the Big Ten West this year.

3. Nov. 17 vs. Iowa

One of the reasons why the Hawkeyes keep finding themselves in contention for the Big Ten West title is because of their ability to run over, through and around the Fighting Illini. Illinois last beat their neighbors to the west back in 2008 (0-4 since then). An upset would be a statement victory for Lovie Smith but that will be much easier said than done.

College Football Rankings: Iowa Football

2. Sept. 21 vs. Penn State

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Penn State

The Illini's Big Ten opener will set the tone for the rest of the season. Saquon Barkley may be in the NFL now, but quarterback Trace McSorley is still at State College and he's a Heisman Trophy contender in his own right. McSorley is arguably the best pure passer in the Big Ten.

1. Oct. 20 at Wisconsin

The Badgers are still king in the Big Ten West. If the Illini hope to be competitive again, defeating the Badgers at some point is a must. Illinois hasn't won in Madison since 2002.

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-- 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.