CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois football will enter a relatively new world this weekend.
When it hosts Rutgers at Memorial Stadium for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday, Illinois will be a favorite to win a Big Ten football game by multiple touchdowns for the first time in nearly a decade. Currently the Wynn Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas opened with Illinois (4-4, 2-3 in Big Ten) as a 21-point favorite.
Whether it is about the complete ineptitude of Rutgers or newfound confidence after back-to-back conference wins, the role of being a major favorite is new and exciting for Illini football.
“I think as we continue to build our program, we’ve got to be able to handle these situations,” Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said.
The last time Illinois was a 20-point favorite was not a good memory for anybody in orange and blue as the 2010 Illini squad lost to a Minnesota team that was 1-8 and under an interim coach.
November football is as important as it ever has been in the Lovie Smith era. Illinois is now two wins away from bowl eligibility and the program’s first postseason game since 2015.
"I guess you could say that we're getting more respect when you see we're favored to win by that much but honestly, I don't think anybody in our building will want to pay that much attention to stuff like that," Illini junior linebacker Jake Hansen said. "We're still an improving football team with things to correct, that's for sure."
Rutgers (2-6, 0-5) is coming off a 44-34 victory over Liberty last weekend but the Scarlet Knights fired head coach Chris Ash four games into this season.
“We’ve been favored against them in the past and they’ve beat us,” Smith said referencing Rutgers’ 35-24 win over Illinois in 2017. “
Rutgers has been outscored 207-14 in Big Ten play this season but two years ago Rutgers got three Big Ten football wins including a 14-12 win over a bowl-eligible Purdue team. For an Illini team, which was a 30-point underdog just two weeks ago but managed to knock off Wisconsin in that game, to act as a win can be marked down in pen seems more than ridiculous to offensive coordinator Rod Smith.
“We don’t need to overlook anybody,” Illinois’ offensive boss said Monday. “That won’t be the case, I promise you, in our building. You look at (Rutgers) physically and I remember going up there last year and they’re as good a looking team as anybody we played in the Big Ten last year. I was shocked at how their record was going at that time.”
Lovie Smith pointed out in his weekly media conference Monday afternoon that in order for this Illini program to truly turn a corner mentally, being a large favorite in regular-season games needs to be a regular feeling in Champaign.
“It’s one thing to be a big underdog (and) last week not so big of an underdog,” Lovie Smith said Monday. “This week we’re not going to be an underdog. None of that should affect how we get up and go to work.”