One of the games on the Week 1 college football slate is the first-ever matchup between UTSA Roadrunners and Illinois Fighting Illini. This also marks UTSA's first-ever game against a Big Ten team, and the Roadrunners have a golden opportunity to pick up a signature win against a Power 5 program.
The Illini (1-0) are already in the win column after beating Nebraska 30-22 at home last Saturday (Week 0) in head coach Bret Bielema's debut. And now they have a chance to move to 2-0 for the fourth time in five seasons. The Roadrunners are looking to build off of last season's surprising 7-5 performance in head coach Jeff Traylor's debut. UTSA wound up second in Conference USA's West Division and finished the season in the First Responder Bowl against Louisiana.
Illinois looks to keep righting the ship under Bielema, while UTSA looks for possibly its biggest upset in program history. Don't sleep on this game.
UTSA at Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 4 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Illinois -5.5
When UTSA Has the Ball
Senior quarterback Frank Harris is the engine that makes the Roadrunners' offense go. Over the last two seasons, the UTSA signal-caller has registered 2,116 passing yards, 654 rushing yards, and 24 total touchdowns. Harris is supported by Sincere McCormick, one of the top running backs in the country, who is coming off of 1,467 rushing yards (5.9 ypc) and 11 touchdowns in 2020. Junior wide receivers Zakhari Franklin (49 rec., 694 yds., 7 TDs, 14.2 ypr), and Joshua Cephus (58, 547, 5, 9.4) are the biggest weapons in the passing game, but the Illini could take advantage of an offensive line that gave up 23 sacks in seven last year.
Illinois' defense has room to improve after giving up 392 total yards to Nebraska last week. Cornhuskers quarterback Adrian Martinez accounted for most of the damage, throwing for 232 yards and running for 111. Harris' skill set is similar to Martinez's, but the Illini did manage five sacks. Defensive backs Tony Adams (11 tackles) and Sydney Brown (9) led the Illini in stops last week. The defense also was credited with six tackles for a loss and special teams produced a safety (on a muffed punt and illegal forward pass) against the Cornhuskers. Linebacker Calvin Hart Jr. produced a defensive touchdown on a scoop-and-score of a Martinez fumble near the end of the first half, but he suffered a knee injury later in the game. Bielema said on Thursday that Hart underwent surgery and is out for the rest of the season.
When Illinois Has the Ball
Quarterback Brandon Peters isn't expected to play on Saturday after injuring his non-throwing shoulder in the opener against Nebraska. Rutgers transfer Artur Sitkowski is likely to get the start after going 12-for-15 for 124 yards and two touchdowns against the Cornhuskers in relief of Peters.
Quarterback play may not matter as much if the running game continues to be effective. True to Bielema's preferred style of play, Mike Epstein, Reggie Love III, and Chase Brown combined for 144 of the Illini's 167 rushing yards last Saturday. Epstein also had a rushing touchdown, but the veteran offensive line will need to step up after surrendering three sacks.
UTSA defensive lineman Trumane Bell II (team-high four sacks last year), linebacker Trevor Harmanson (second with 73 tackles), and safety Rashad Wisdom (4 INTs) will be tasked with trying to slow down Illinois, particularly on the ground.
Since joining the FBS in 2012, the Roadrunners are 1-14 against Power 5 opponents. Their only win was against Baylor back in 2017. Illinois, on the other hand, is 5-4 all-time against Conference USA members. The Illini haven't lost to the league since 2014 (Louisiana Tech) and have won their last two games C-USA foes (Middle Tennessee 2015, WKU 2017).
Additionally, Illinois is 7-4 in its last 11 games against Group of 5 opponents, while UTSA is 3-7 in its last 10 road games. The Roadrunners keep the game competitive, but the Illini pull out the win in the end.
Prediction: Illinois 24, UTSA 17
Podcast: Week 1 Preview, Predictions & Spread Picks
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who 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 can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.