2016 football schedule analysis: Illinois Fighting Illini

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

2016 football schedule analysis: Illinois Fighting Illini

Tumult has defined Illinois in the last 10 months. The program is on its third head coach in less than a year as the Fighting Illini search for just their fourth bowl since 2007. But hope is running over with the hiring by new A.D. Josh Whitman, who subsequently tabbed former NFL coach Lovie Smith to run the program.

[ MORE: Dienhart: Check out Illinois’ offseason to-do list ]

Here is a look at the 2016 Illinois schedule.

Toughest non-conference game: North Carolina’s visit on Sept. 10 will be a great test. Last year, the Illini waded into Kenan Stadium and got thumped, 48-14. That was a very good UNC squad that finished 11-3 and won the ACC Coastal Division. This will be a good litmus test for Illinois’ new regime. Can the Illini compete with an established non-league foe and avoid a blowout?

Toughest conference game: Lots to choose from. But let’s go with the trip to Michigan on Oct. 22. Jim Harbaugh has this program rolling as he enters Year Two in Ann Arbor. The defense could be the best in the Big Ten, while the offense will be breaking in a new quarterback. The Wolverines have won the last three meetings and nine of 11. The teams haven’t met since 2012, a 45-0 Michigan win in the Big House in a battle between Brady Hoke and Tim Beckman. Boy, a lot has happened since then.

Who they don’t play: The Illini miss Maryland, Penn State, Ohio State and Indiana.

Easiest game: The lifting won’t get any lighter than in the Sept. 3 opener vs. FCS Murray State in Champaign. Illinois will need this tune up as prep for North Carolina’s visit the next week followed by a dangerous home game vs. P.J. Fleck’s Western Michigan Broncos.

Toughest stretch: The last four games are daunting. The season-ending run begins with a visit from Michigan State followed by a trip to Wisconsin, a visit from Iowa and a game at Northwestern. The Illini have one win vs. MSU since 1995 (1-12); one victory vs. Wisconsin since 2003 (1-10); one triumph vs. Iowa since 2003 (1-7); and just four wins vs. Northwestern since 2003 (4-9).

Best chance to be upset: The visit from Western Michigan on Sept. 17 is dangerous. P.J. Fleck is an up-and-coming coaching fireball who always preaches to “row the boat.” He played at Northern Illinois, is a native of the state and has his Bronco program rolling. You know the 35-year old would love to topple the Illini. In fact, Western Michigan may have as much talent as Illinois, as Fleck has taken his team to consecutive bowls and 8-5 records and won the MAC West in 2015. More danger for Illinois: WMU’s visit comes on the heels of a home game vs. a good North Carolina squad.

Best chance to pull an upset: If the offense comes together, Illinois may have a shot to shock Iowa when the Hawkeyes visit Memorial Stadium on Nov. 19. But how beat up will Illinois be coming off a game the week before at Wisconsin? The Hawkeyes will be coming off a game at home vs. Michigan, so Iowa may be softened up.

Must win: If the Fighting Illini want any shot at a bowl game, they must win their Big Ten opener vs. Purdue in Champaign. Big Ten victories will be difficult to come by. And this is one Illinois needs to get. The Illini have lost the last two at home to the Boilermakers, last winning in Champaign in 2010. But Illinois crushed Purdue last year in West Lafayette, 48-14.

Bye week: This comes after the three non-conference games—all at home. Illinois will catch its breath on Sept. 24 after playing Western Michigan. It then opens Big Ten play at Nebraska on Oct. 1. The extra prep time will help, as the Huskers will be looking for revenge after losing at Illinois last year in dramatic fashion.

***

ILLINOIS’ 2016 SCHEDULE

Day Date Opponent Time TV Result
Sat. 9/3TBA vs. Murray State TBA
Sat. 9/10TBA vs. 15 North Carolina TBA
Sat. 9/17TBA vs. Western Michigan TBA
Sat. 10/1TBA at Nebraska TBA
Sat. 10/8TBA vs. Purdue TBA
Sat. 10/15TBA at Rutgers TBA
Sat. 10/22TBA at 12 Michigan TBA
Sat. 10/29TBA vs. Minnesota TBA
Sat. 11/5TBA vs. 6 Michigan State TBA
Sat. 11/12TBA at 21 Wisconsin TBA
Sat. 11/19TBA vs. 9 Iowa TBA
Sat. 11/26TBA at 23 Northwestern TBA
Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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