Bret Bielema is ushering in a new era for Illinois football in 2021 and is hoping to finally be the guy to turn Illinois football into a consistent winner for the first time since the 1980s.
Bielema returns to the college game after a three-year hiatus to the NFL as an assistant coach for the New England Patriots and New York Giants after being let go from Arkansas after a 29-34 record with Razorbacks from 2013-17.
Due to the NCAA granting student-athletes a free year of eligibility because of the pandemic, Illinois was able to return 21 seniors for a “super senior” season in 2021 — the most of any Power 5 school in the country.
With an experienced roster and more proven college coaching staff, Illinois could be primed to take a run at a bowl game, but here is why you should the over on 2021 win total with a game-by-game prediction for their season.
Illinois’ over under has been set at three games by DraftKings. You can view every team’s over-under total here.
Week 0: Nebraska
This game was supposed to be played in Dublin, Ireland, but was moved back to Champaign, its original location, over concerns around COVID. Illinois beat Nebraska last season in Lincoln 41-23, in their most impressive showing of the season.
Illini quarterback Brandon Peters tore apart the Nebraska Cornhuskers‘ defense to the tune of 205 yards and a touchdown while also rushing for 44 yards last season. With Bielema’s desire to run the football with lead running back Chase Brown returning, Illinois should look to capitalize on Nebraska’s ninth-ranked rush defense in the Big Ten last season.
Week 1: UTSA
Illinois gets an easier opponent on paper in their second game against UTSA. The Roadrunners posted a 7-5 (5-2) record in 2020. UTSA struggled with an inconsistent offense in scoring over 25-points in five games but scoring 17-points or less in three games.
If Illinois can slow down UTSA’s passing attack, likely lead by New Mexico State transfer Josh Adkins, Illinois should be able to get a nighttime victory.
Week 2: at Virginia
This is when the honeymoon phase for Bielema’s program is likely to come to an end. Bronco Mendenhall has led Virginia to three consecutive seasons of at least .500 football. Going on the road into a hostile environment will be tough for Illinois.
Chase Brown and the rest of the Illini rushing attack could keep them in this game late, but expect Virginia to escape with the win behind the dual-threat talents of Brennan Armstrong at QB for the Cavaliers.
Week 3: Maryland
Getting back into Big Ten competition, Illinois will welcome Mike Locksley and Maryland to Champaign. Locksley was the offensive coordinator for the last 2007-08 Illinois team that played in the Rose Bowl, so he’s familiar with Memorial Stadium.
Locksley brings Taulia Tagovailoa with him to quarterback his Terrapin offense. In his one season at Maryland, Tagovailoa electrified Maryland’s offense with some highlight-reel plays but also made some real head-scratching decisions. By this point in the season, Peters should be settled into the Illini offense, and the run game should be clicking behind an experienced offensive line. Take the consistency of the Illini offense to get it done on a Friday night in Champaign.
Week 4: at Purdue
llinois lost to Purdue 31-24 last season playing their fourth-string quarterback Coran Taylor. Peters and then backup quarterback Isaiah Williams (now a WR) were held out due to COVID regulations. Third-stringer Matt Robinson suffered an ankle injury on the first drive, which forced Coran Taylor into action. Taylor was able to keep the Illini in the game, but eventually, his turnovers helped Purdue down the stretch.
Former Illinois coach Love Smith stuck to his base Cover-2 defense in most situations, but with new defensive coordinator Ryan Walters planning to run more multiple attacks, Illinois should be better prepared to handle Purdue’s spread offense.
This, along with the Maryland game, are two of the swing games for Illinois in 2021. Wins against both could lead to a bowl game, but a loss in both could deter the Illini’s season. Because Illinois is on the road, give the nod to the Boilermakers. But it will be close.
Week 5: Charlotte
In week five, Illinois gets their easiest opponent on paper all season when Charlotte travels to Champaign. The 49ers went just 2-4 last season and scored over 20 points in just two of their games.
Expect Illinois to pound the run and take advantage of Charlotte’s defense that surrendered over 200 rushing yards a game last season.
Week 6: Wisconsin
Illinois shocked the world in 2019, upsetting then-No. 6 Wisconsin at Memorial Stadium. It won’t happen again in 2021. Bielema faces off against one of his former understudies in Paul Chyst in Bielema’s first matchup against his former employer.
The Badgers are just too physical and too good at what they do to allow Illinois to beat them at their own game. Badger quarterback Graham Mertz tore apart the Illini defense in the season opener in 2020 for five touchdowns. Mertz largely struggled the rest of the season, but the former prized recruit has the potential to have a breakout season with a more traditional offseason.
Week 7: Bye
Week 8: at Penn State
Penn State’s struggles in 2020 were one of the biggest surprises in college football last season. Many experts expected Penn State to compete with Ohio State in the Big Ten East; instead, the Nittany Lions went just 4-5 on the season.
Expect Penn State to bounce back in 2021 with Sean Clifford leading the way at quarterback. Clifford struggled at times in 2020, but he has all the intangibles to be a good college quarterback. Penn State has too much talent to lose a home game to Illinois. Take Penn State.
Week 9: Rutgers
Illinois was able to escape New Jersey last season with a game-winning kick from James McCourt as time expired. Greg Schiano is making great headway again in his second stint as the head coach at Rutgers, but he still has a really young group of players.
This could be a classic smash-mouth, cold Big Ten football game. But because this one in Champaign gives the nod to the Illini in a close one.
Week 10: at Minnesota
The success that PJ Fleck has had at Minnesota is something of a model that Bielema can point towards at Illinois. Fleck has a 23-15 record as the Gophers head coach since being hired in 2017, including three wins over Illinois.
Minnesota lost a lot of talent at various positions, most notable losing Rashod Bateman to the NFL Draft, but a road game late in the season in Minnesota is never an easy task, and Minnesota still has the roster advantage over the Illini. Give Minnesota the nod in 2021, but this could turn into an interesting rivalry in future seasons if Bielema is able to follow a similar trajectory as Fleck.
Week 11: Bye
Week 12: at Iowa
Iowa was able to overcome a 14-0 Illinois lead in the 2020 matchup of this game before scoring 35 points to beat Illinois 35-21. Iowa is one of the two favorites to win the Big Ten West again in 2021, with Spencer Petras back leading the Hawkeye offense.
This is going to be a ground and pound game featuring two old-styled fashions of play, but Iowa is too good across the board for the Illini to get a late-season upset of the Hawkeyes.
Week 13: Northwestern
Pat Fitzgerald has taken Northwestern to two of the last three Big Ten Championship games, an impressive feat for the Wildcats. With Peyton Ramsey’s career finished, Northwestern will be lead by a new quarterback, but the stability of the Wildcats program should allow new quarterback Ryan Hilinkski to manage the game effectively.
Illinois could be just one win away from clinching a bowl game, but Fitzgerald has the Illini’s number, and Bielema will fall short of a bowl berth in his debut season with the Illini.