Illini Football Fun Facts Coming From Pat Forde's SI Cover Piece

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Two phrases that would certainly be revived when describing an Illinois matchup in Pat Forde’s realigned college football world be: “first time” and/or “haven’t played since.”

With exception to playing current Big Ten, in-state rival Northwestern, which Illinois currently leads in that historical series dating back to 1892 with a 55-53-5 overall record, the Illini haven’t seen much of the rest of the schools in Forde’s Mid-American Conference.

At Illini Now/Sports Illustrated, we break down the categories of opponents: Never played, never lost to, never won against.




Illinois and Tennessee have never played a college football game against each other. Randy Sartin/USA TODAY Sports

Illinois has yet to ever play a football game against three of these schools in Forde’s make-believe Mid-American Conference and two of them are Power Five Conference schools in the Southeastern Conference.

Tennessee, which is a seven hour, 30-minute drive from Champaign-Urbana, has never scheduled Illinois in a football game and have never been on the same football field despite having several SEC/Big Ten crossover opportunities to be matched up in bowl games.

Vanderbilt has played other Big Ten Conference schools but has never matched up with Illinois. The other SEC school in Forde’s new MAC that has played Illinois is Kentucky. However, the Wildcats and Fighting Illini have shared a football just twice all-time, never in Lexington and not since 1913. Illinois won the 1913 matchup 21-0 after losing 6-2 at home to Kentucky in 1909.

Illinois has also never played Marshall in a college football game but has played its nearby in-state rival West Virginia twice in Champaign but not since the Mountaineers led by head coach Bobby Bowden walked out of Memorial Stadium in 1973 with a 17-10 win.




Illinois Fighting Illini running back Ra'Von Bonner (21) escapes from Western Kentucky Hilltoppers linebacker Daeshawn Bertram (54) during the fourth quarter of a 2017 game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill.Mike Granse/USA TODAY Sports

In three instances of this make-believe, Pat Forde-created MAC does Illinois have an undefeated all-time record and all three are directional schools from Group of Six conferences. Illinois is undefeated against Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee State and Northern Illinois.

Illinois defeated WKU in 2014, 2017 and 2018. The closest the Hilltoppers came to defeating Illinois was 2014 when then-head coach Jeff Brohm (who is now the head coach at Purdue), a former Illinois assistant coach under Ron Zook, had his team to a near victory by leading most of the game but faltered late as the Illini escaped 42-34. The other two results were 20-7 in 2017 and 34-14 in 2018.

Illinois is 3-0 against Middle Tennessee State with two blowouts in 1998 (48-20) and 2000 (35-6) followed up by the Illini escaping disaster 27-25 in 2015. Illinois is also 4-0 against Northern Illinois with the last two wins coming by a single-digit margin (17-12 in 2001 and 28-22 in 2010) following Illinois blowouts (30-14 in 1992 and 34-10 in 1994). None of these games were Illinois is undefeated have involved the Illini going on the road to play that opponent.




Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Chase Claypool (83) celebrates after a touchdown in the second quarter of a 2019 game against the Boston College Eagles at Notre Dame Stadium.Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports

This category is represented by a singular school that is relatively well known nationally: Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish program are 11-0-1 all-time against Illinois but the two schools haven’t played since 1968. From 1937 to 1946, the two schools played every year except 1939. After finishing with a 0-0 tie in 1937, Notre Dame took each of the last 10 matchups including the final two in a home-and-home versus Illinois in 1967 and 1968 by a combined score of 105-15. There was a four-year period of games from 1942 to 1945 where Illinois only scored a combined total of seven points.

The 1968 game was the last time Illinois entered Notre Dame Stadium as the No. 6 Irish defeated Illinois 58-8 in front of an announced season-high crowd for Illinois of 59,075. That 1968 Illini team would finish that year with a 1-9 record and between 1967 and 1968 would lose 19 of its 20 games with the only fond memory being a 14-0 victory against Northwestern. The last time Notre Dame came to Champaign was 1967 when they defeated the Illini 47-7 in front of an announced season-high crowd of 71,227.