Ohio State football Buck'Eyeing' the Big Ten: Illinois Fighting Illini

The first in a series of other B1G teams that the Ohio State football team could face looks at Illinois' 2024 prospects.
Illinois head coach Bret Bielema
Illinois head coach Bret Bielema / David Berding/GettyImages

"Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer..." ~ MIchael Corleone to Frank Pentangeli in The Godfather, Part II

For those of you who have never seen the Godfather or The Godfather, Part II, 1) Do yourselves a favor and watch both. You can skip The Godfather, Part III if you want. There is a reason why those two movies are considered among the best in cinematic history. The Godfather, Part II is the only sequel in history to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. And 2) Michael Corleone's sage advice is something that the Ohio State football coaches will want to remember as the 2024 college football season gets closer.

2024 is going to be the start of so many new things within college football. The Big Ten has expanded to 18 teams, with four new teams added from the West Coast. With this expansion, The Big Ten has also decided to eliminate divisions, with the end result that the top two teams within the conference at the end of the regular season will play in The Big Ten Championship Game.

Considering that there are now 18 teams, the Big Ten has implemented a new scheduling policy of rotating opponents. Each team was allowed to declare a certain number of protected rivalries, and Ohio State (naturally) declared Michigan as its protected rival, guaranteeing that the two teams would play every season.

The rotation of conference opponents has been established from 2024 until the 2028 season. Considering the depth of teams that now comprise The Big Ten, there is a possibility that a team not on Ohio State's 2024 schedule could wind up in The Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. It is with that thought in mind, and the words of Michael Corleone, that prompted me to start this series, looking at the other teams within The Big Ten that Ohio State will not be facing in the 2024 regular season.

First up, Illinois. I am going to be reviewing these teams within The Big Ten in alphabetical order, giving my thoughts on their possible season outlook, as well as the odds that the team could wind up in The Big Ten Championship Game.

Illinois Fighting Illini: 2023 record (5-7)

Bret Bielema had Illinois oh so close to winning The Big Ten West in 2022, as the Fighting Illini finished 8-5 that season. Last year, the Fighting Illini fell to 5-7, missing out on a bowl bid by losing at Iowa (15-13) and to Northwestern (45-43). A few more points in either of those games and Illinois was going bowling.

Next Scheduled Regular Season Game Against Ohio State: 2025, when Ohio State will travel to Memorial Stadium. The date of the game has not yet been announced.

Key Personnel Losses From 2023: DL Jer'Zhan Newton was selected in the 2nd round of the 2024 NFL Draft and was a key factor in Illinois' strong defensive play the last couple of seasons. G Isaiah Adams and TE Tip Reiman were both 3rd round selections in the 2024 NFL Draft by Arizona. Although he was not selected in the 2024 NFL Draft, WR Isaiah Williams was a loss for the offense, as well as RB Reggie Love III's decision to enter the transfer portal to play for Purdue.

2024 Schedule Outlook: To avoid missing out on a bowl bid for the second consecutive year, Illinois has to have a winning non-conference season, as they will host Eastern Illinois (08/29), Kansas (09/07), and Central Michigan (09/14). If Illinois goes 2-1 or 3-0, the possibility of getting to the magic number of 6 wins necessary for a bowl bid will not be quite so daunting.

Illinois has a rough stretch of conference play, beginning at Nebraska (09/21), at Penn State (09/28), Purdue (10/12), Michigan (10/19), and at Oregon (10/26). Oof. Considering how Nebraska (20-7), Penn State (30-13), and Purdue (44-19) handled Illinois last season, you can see why this stretch of conference play is perilous for the Fighting Illini.

The backend of Illinois' 2024 schedule is easier, with games versus Minnesota (11/02), Michigan State (11/16), at Rutgers (11/23), and a trip to Wrigley Field for a rivalry game versus Northwestern (11/30).

Prediction For 2024: It is 50/50 on a bowl bid. As I wrote above, the key to a winning season will hinge on how well Illinois starts with their non-conference opponents, as the conference schedule looks to be a grinder in the middle of the season.


Look for the second part of the series next week, as we look at how the 2024 season may shape up for the Maryland Terrapins. As always, let me know what you think, and thanks for reading.