Analysis: Illinois’ 2020 Season Will Be Defined Before Thanksgiving Weekend

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The new Big Ten Conference football schedule should give Illinois fans a true sense of where their favorite football team stands before the Thanksgiving holiday.

In the first five weekends of this 2020 season, Illinois will have four divisional games and the only Eastern Division crossover game (at Rutgers) being the only contest the Illini can be assured on Sept. 19 (which was when this schedule was released on Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff pre-game show) they’ll be favored to win.

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Illinois, led by senior quarterback Brandon Peters, will open the 2020 schedule at defending Western Division champion Wisconsin on the weekend of Oct. 24. David Craan/University of Illinois athletics department

If you followed what the father of Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters said to Illini Now/Sports Illustrated on Aug. 11, the day the Big Ten Conference announced a postponement of fall sports, this 2020 campaign has always been the highlighted year of Lovie Smith’s tenure at Illinois.

“He and everybody in that group feel like they have something special,” Dave Peters said to Illini Now/SI. “It’s a great experience and we feel like Illinois and Lovie Smith and his staff have put together a very good environment and organization for their players.”

Illinois will be the first road team to enter what will be an empty Camp Randall Stadium in the opening weekend games, which is likely to be a bizarre environment for a Wisconsin team that is 30-6 at home under head coach Paul Chryst. Illinois hasn’t won in Madison since 2002 when a 3-6 Illini team upset the Badgers 37-20 thanks to four touchdown passes from quarterback Jon Beutjer.

If you’re looking for optimism as an Illini fan for this opener (beyond the obvious point of the 24-23 upset win on Homecoming weekend last season), it could be that Wisconsin traditionally stumbles in the first few weeks of a season against an non-conference opponent (vs. BYU in 2018, vs. Iowa in 2015) but Chryst has historically done a much better job than Gary Anderson and his current boss Barry Alvarez at avoiding a letdown early-season loss.

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However, Illinois will host home games in Week 2 (vs. Purdue) and Week 3 (vs. Minnesota) in games that will likely define the momentum of this 2020 season for Lovie Smith’s program. If Illinois can defeat Purdue for a second straight year for the first time since 2002 and defeat Minnesota for a second straight time in Champaign, the Illini head into road game at Rutgers where they could find themselves in a great position for a winning record in this nine-game slate.

However, there’s a possibility Illinois will be an underdog in those first three games and a 0-3 start could halt any optimism to the most anticipated season in Illini history since arguably the 2008 campaign (the year after Ron Zook took Illinois to the Rose Bowl).

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One more brief note is the fifth game on this schedule as Illinois draws a road game at Nebraska but this contest could shape up as a blessing for the Illini in two possible ways. The Big Ten arguably gave the Cornhuskers program the hardest start as they open at Ohio State, vs. Wisconsin, at Northwestern and vs. Penn State before they host the Illini on the weekend of Nov. 21. It's clear that Nebraska, which is in the third season under head coach Scott Frost, could either be A) so mentally and physically beat up before they get to the Illinois game, the visiting Illini might catch them at the right time or B) they're riding so high after pulling off some of these massive upsets that the visiting Illini might be the perfect definition of a trap game. 

Either way, Lovie Smith’s squad should have a very clear picture to the outcome of its 2020 season before they take the field on Thanksgiving weekend against the defending Big Ten Conference champion Ohio State Buckeyes in Week 6. It’s likely Illinois could be eyeing a dark horse run at a finish near the top of the Western Division or struggling to find any wins at all by the time the November holiday arrives.  

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