The Big Ten matchup between the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Illinois Fighting Illini became a COVID casualty of sorts earlier in the year. The game is still set to be played on Saturday it just won’t take place in Ireland as originally scheduled. The pandemic shelved those plans.
Instead the two will open conference play in Champaign in the Illinois debut of Bret Bielema. No stranger to the Big Ten West after seven seasons and 68 wins at Wisconsin, Bielema looks to turn the Illini program around after 17 wins in the last five seasons under Lovie Smith.
The game between the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Illini Fighting Illini will take place at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, IL at 1 p.m. ET on Saturday, August 28, 2021, and will be televised on FOX.
Nebraska Cornhuskers vs Fighting Illini Odds
Nebraska Cornhuskers -7
Illinois Fighting Illini +7
(Odds provided by BookMaker.eu as of 9:05 am ET)
The teams have met every year since 2013 with Nebraska winning six of the eight meetings. The Huskers were a double-digit favorite in each of the last three matchups and in four of the last five. They are just 2-3 ATS in those games. Both teams were porous defensively last year leading to some big scores, mostly by the opponent. The teams played over the total last year and the OVER is 3-0 in the last three games. The opening total of 55 is the lowest in this series since 2017.
Playing as an underdog is nothing new for Illinois. They were catching points in every game last season and dropped the last three games when spotted at least 13.5 points in each. Being only a touchdown underdog has to feel like a win. The Illini posted a big upset over Nebraska winning on the road 41-23 as a 17-point dog. They ended the campaign 2-6 SU and 3-5 ATS.
Entering his fourth season at the helm there’s a lot of pressure on Scott Frost to show results. After leading Central Florida to an undefeated 13-0 record in 2017, Frost returned to his alma mater with lofty expectations. Unfortunately he’s yet to produce a winning campaign and the offense that was so explosive at UCF hasn’t followed.
There are pieces in place and it starts with quarterback Adrian Martinez, who looks to become the leader Frost anticipated he would be. Martinez and the offense weren’t terrible last season. Martinez rushed for over 500 yards and completed 71.5 percent of his passes, but the Huskers lagged in the passing game averaging fewer than 200 yards per game.
The success of the Huskers lies with the play of Martinez. He makes the offense click, but they need to find a downfield passing game while limiting turnovers and becoming more consistent. Martinez has some playmakers on the outside and the ground game should be solid. I’m not sure Illinois has fixed all its problems on defense so I expect Martinez to have a big day. On paper the defense looks improved and the Huskers are looking to avenge last year’s embarrassing loss.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Bielema certainly has his work cut out for him. He inherited a solid Wisconsin program built by Barry Alvarez and he even had some pieces to work with when he moved on to Arkansas. This new gig, though, is like starting over. The program was a wreck under Lovie Smith going 17-40 in the previous five seasons winning four games or fewer four times. The coach is already putting his stamp on the program, but it’s going to take time.
Progress will be measured by how many points they lose by instead of wins and losses. And the Illini need to establish an identity and stick with it. Under Bielema the Badgers were a dominant run team and that carried over to Arkansas. But new coordinator Tony Petersen has visions of opening up the offense and has a history working with quarterbacks.
There are a lot of new faces on the team but there should be some stability at QB with Brandon Peters. Four guys combined to throw for 1,223 yards while completing only 46.9 percent of their passes last year. Those numbers wouldn’t look as bad if the run game was productive. Illinois averaged less than 200 yards on the ground. Defensively they’ll need to stop Nebraska’s run game, something they had trouble doing all last season. The Illini yielded over 230 yards on the ground and 5.2 yards per pop. The group will be better, but not a whole lot.
Nebraska vs Illinois Prediction
This is a huge season for Frost and the Huskers and they have an opportunity to get it started the right way. Having experience at key positions, led by Martinez, and a defense that’s been upgraded enough to potentially be the best since Frost took over, makes Nebraska a sleeper pick in the Big Ten West. Big Red also has a score to settle after getting embarrassed at home by Illinois last year. That’s enough for me to lay the points with the visitors.
Odds Prediction: Nebraska -7 / OVER 55