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Can Illini football contend in the Big Ten West in 2023?



Illini football

Expectations are high for Illini Football in 2023

The time for talk is almost over. In two weeks, the Illinois Fighting Illini take the field in their home opener against the Toledo Rockets. Expectations are high for Illini Football. Record season ticket sales prove what fans think of the Illini’s chances this fall. Illini fans have every right to expect big things in 2023. This roster is loaded with returning and new talent.

Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph are on the Chuck Bednarik watch list as two defensive linemen to watch. Freshmen wide receivers Kenari Wilcher and Malik Elzy are looking to supplant Pat Bryant and Casey Washington at receiver. Luke Altmyer wants to prove that Lane Kiffin sent the wrong quarterback into the transfer portal. Consequently, head coach Bret Bielema and his staff know that his team has all the tools to contend in the Big Ten West.

How many games will Illini Football win this fall?

Sept 2 Toledo W:  The Illini had better be ready to play against the Rockets. Toledo returns Dequan Finn, Jacquez Stewart, and Jerjuan Newton. This is an offense that can score in multiple ways. However, Illinois wins this game because they should be able to use their size advantage in the trenches to overwhelm the Rockets.

Sept 9 at Kansas W: Champaign isn’t the only place where there is a buzz about the football program in 2022. Jayhawk fans are excited about football in Lawrence. This game should be one of the more entertaining early-season games of the season. One concern is Kansas’ ability to throw the football. The Jayhawks might be able to exploit a rebuilt Illinois secondary. However, Illinois has the advantage because Kansas’ defense can’t stop anyone.

Sept 16 Penn State L: This might be more of a 50/50 game than most people think. Drew Allar is supposed to be the quarterback the Nittany Lions have been looking for since James Franklin took the job at Penn State. Also, Penn State should have one of the best defenses in the conference. Conversely, so do the Illini. This game is going to be a slugfest. Penn State might be more explosive offensively, which gives them the edge.

Sept 23 Florida Atlantic W: New head coach Tom Herman brought in the quarterback he recruited at Texas, Casey Thompson. The Nebraska transfer has weapons as well. Leading rusher Larry McCammon returns, as do leading receivers Je’Quan Burton and LaJohntay Wester. The offense was not the problem for the Owls in 2022; it was the defense. Illinois’ offense is the reason they win this game.

The Heart of the Conference Schedule

Sept 30 at Purdue W: This game has given Illinois fits the last few years. The Illini has won the Purdue Cannon four times since 2010. Purdue has a new head coach, a new quarterback, and a new offensive coordinator. Despite this game being on the road, Illinois has the better roster, and there is a lot of turnover in West Lafayette. The Illini wins the Purdue Cannon.

Oct 7 Nebraska W: While the Cornhuskers should give the Illini a great game, Nebraska is gambling on Jeff Sims, staying healthy for an entire season. That is quite the gamble since Sims has had injury issues his entire career. Illinois has the advantage because of the continuity of the staff and the roster. In addition, it’s hard to fathom that the Cornhuskers’ rush defense can get fixed in one off-season.

Oct 14 at Maryland W: This game is the most exciting contest of the season. Maryland’s offense is going to be legit. Taulia Tagovailoa leads an offense that features Roman Hemby, one of the best all-purpose backs in the conference, and Corey Dyches, one of the best tight ends. The question here is, “Who do you trust?” Do you trust Maryland’s defense or Illinois’ offense? Trust the Illini offense in this game.

Oct 21 Wisconsin W: Many people have this game as a 50-50 game for both the Badgers and Illini. However, Wisconsin is shifting its offensive philosophy. Also, they have a lot of turnover on offense. Can Tanner Mordecai be a difference-maker for the Badgers? Wisconsin had Braelon Allen, and he’s one of the best running backs in the country, but he might be alone as a playmaker. Wisconsin’s defense has questions of its own. They are replacing Nick Herbig and John Torchio. It’s not a guarantee, but Illinois wins a close one.

The last quarter of the season

Nov 4 at Minnesota W: Much like Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Purdue, there is turnover in Minneapolis. They have a new quarterback, running back, and interior offensive linemen. The Gophers will be solid on defense but also suffered some losses to the NFL. The question is whether or not you trust PJ Fleck and his ability to reload the roster. Once again, not a gimme game, but Illinois should come away with a road victory.

Nov 11 Indiana W: Current head coach Tom Allen might be on the outs by this game. Illinois wants their win back from their controversial loss last year. Illinois should win this game comfortably.

Nov 18 at Iowa L: Iowa City is a tough place to play for anyone. If this game is at night, Iowa has the advantage. Illinois can upset the Hawkeyes if this game is at noon. That said, Iowa is going through some changes offensively. The Hawkeyes have to replace some key pieces in the secondary, including Riley Moss. The Hawkeyes also lost three linebackers to the NFL. It’s a 50-50 game, and Illinois does have a chance to win.

Nov 25 Northwestern W: Illinois football should have little issue with the Wildcats against their interstate rival in the annual game for the Hat. Northwestern is a mess after the Pat Fitzgerald scandal. It also remains to be seen how much of a roster. The Wildcats will have by the end of the season.

Prediction: 9-3, 6-2

There are many potential unknowns with the Illini. Luke Altmyer is talented but unproven. The staff hopes two true freshmen receivers are as advertised. However, Illinois football might have the best offensive/defensive line combination in the conference. Their defensive front is elite, and the secondary will be good despite losing three defensive backs to the NFL.

This is Illinois’ best opportunity in a long time to win the Big Ten West and play for a conference title. There is a lot of turnover in the division ahead of the conference realigning in 2024. Illinois has to take advantage of that this year.

Armchair Illini is a comprehensive site dedicated to covering University of Illinois Athletics owned and operated by Alex Kyi. Dante Pryor has been writing about College Football for years on Saturday Blitz and is now the Lead Football Author for Armchair Illini.