Illinois has a legitimate chance of making a bowl game for the first time since 2014. After a 24-23 upset win over Wisconsin, the Fighting Illini advanced to 3-4 on the season. Though they lost to Eastern Michigan, they were competitive in losses to Nebraska and Michigan. They will need to keep the momentum from their win over Wisconsin to get to 6 wins.
Illinois travels to Purdue on Saturday to take on the 2-5 Boilermakers. Purdue is currently a 9 point favorite, but will likely be without star WR Rondale Moore. Purdue has lost 4 of their last 5 games but has seen freshman WR David Bell step up in Moore’s absence. This is a winnable game for Illinois, who might actually be the better team this year despite being an underdog.
After playing Purdue, Illinois hosts Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are 1-6 and will add another loss before heading to Illinois. Rutgers is easily the worst team in the Big Ten. Their closest conference game was a 30-0 loss to Iowa and they’ve been shut out in 3 of their 5 conference games. This is a game Illinois has to win in order to make a bowl game, and they should be able to win with ease.
They travel to Michigan State after playing Rutgers. Michigan State is the second best team left on their schedule and boasts one of the best defenses in the Big Ten. They have a bye week before this game and should be prepared for the Illini. They’re currently 4-3 but will most likely be 4-4 after playing Penn State on Saturday. Especially if they lose, Illinois might run into an unmotivated Michigan State team who won’t have a Big Ten title, Playoff berth, or major bowl to play for. They may also catch the Spartans looking ahead to a trip to Michigan the next week. Illinois should lose this game, but may be able to pull off a road upset with a strong performance and a little bit of luck.
After a bye week, Illinois has their toughest remaining game: a road trip to Iowa. The Hawkeyes are 5-2 after losing to Michigan and Penn State in consecutive weeks, but they may have their season on the line in this game. Iowa has a 2-2 conference record, two games behind 4-0 Minnesota and one game behind 3-1 Wisconsin. Minnesota will likely lose at least two of their remaining games against Penn State, Iowa, and Wisconsin. If Iowa is able to beat Minnesota and Wisconsin, and Minnesota loses one more game, they will be in the driver’s seat in the West heading into this game. If a division title is on the line, Illinois will run into a highly motivated team and could potentially lose big. If Iowa loses a game or two before this, they may run into a team looking ahead to their rivalry game against Nebraska. Illinois should lose this game and an upset seems very unlikely.
Illinois finishes the season at home against rival Northwestern. The Wildcats are 1-5 with their only win coming against UNLV. With games against Iowa and Minnesota remaining, they will likely be 4-7 at best with nothing more than pride to play for. Illinois could be 5-6 and playing for a bowl game. I think that Illinois is already the better team, but home field advantage and a potential bowl game could serve as enough motivation to lead them to a win.
Though they currently have a losing record, this looks like the best Illinois team of the Lovie Smith era. They are capable of beating Purdue, Rutgers, and Northwestern. I believe they will and can make a bowl game for the first time in 5 years if they can play like they did against Wisconsin.