Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, May 11, 2015

Tim Beckman enjoyed a breakthrough of sorts in this third season at Illinois in 2014, guiding Illinois to its first bowl since 2011 during a 6-7 campaign.

Now, he?s trying to get the Fighting Illini to bowls in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2010-11. Beckman will have his most talented roster yet but will face a daunting schedule that features seven bowl teams.

Here is a detailed look at Illinois? 2015 schedule.

Toughest non-conference game: at North Carolina, Sept. 19. The trip to North Carolina vs. a rising UNC program coming off two bowls in a row will be daunting. Illinois is 0-2 all-time vs. the Tar Heels, losing in Chapel Hill in 1987, 34-14, in the last meeting. That game featured Mike White coaching vs. Dick Crum. It would be the last season for each.

Toughest conference game: vs. Ohio State, Nov. 14. This will be a huge challenge, as the Buckeyes are the defending national champs and probable preseason No. 1 team. The Fighting Illini have lost seven in a row to the Buckeyes, last winning in Columbus in 2007 when they pulled a huge shocker by beating No. 1 OSU. The Illini have not beaten Ohio State in Champaign since 1991, going 0-10 since then.

Who they don?t play: Rutgers, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan and Michigan State. All of those teams but IU made a bowl last season.

Easiest game: vs. Western Illinois, Sept. 12. This should be a relative breeze. The Leathernecks finished 5-7 overall in the rugged Missouri Valley last season.

Rugged stretch: The first four Big Ten games from Oct. 3-31 are rough: Nebraska, at Iowa, Wisconsin, at Penn State. Illinois has lost its only two meetings vs. the Cornhuskers since the Huskers joined the Big Ten-both in Lincoln. This will be Nebraska?s first trip to Champaign since 1986, a 59-14 Huskers? win. Illinois has lost six of its last seven to Iowa. The Fighting Illini have just three wins vs. Wisconsin since 1992 (3-14-1). Penn State is 14-4 vs. Illinois since joining the Big Ten. If Illinois can win one of those games, it will be a success.

Factoid: A 4-0 non-league mark would no doubt help Illinois? bowl hopes. Beckman has gone 2-2, 3-1 and 3-1 in non-conference action-and three of the wins have been vs. FCS foes.

Best chance to be upset: vs. Middle Tennessee State, Sept. 26. Illinois needs to be careful when the Blue Raiders come to town. This is an underrated C-USA program that has been to three bowls since 2009 and went 6-6 last season under Rick Stockstill. This program always has speed.

Best chance to pull an upset: at North Carolina, Sept. 19. If Illinois can open 2-0, it will bring some mojo to its game at North Carolina. Still, the Tar Heels look good with 10 starters back on offense, a unit led by OC Seth Littrell, who used to run Indiana?s attack under Kevin Wilson. The defense is now led by former Auburn coach Gene Chizik.

Must win: vs. Northwestern, Nov. 28. Last year, the Fighting Illini needed to win at Northwestern to get bowl eligible-and did. Illinois may find itself in the same predicament this season in the finale vs. Northwestern at Soldier Field. The good news: Illinois has won three of the last five meetings.

Bye week: The timing is good, coming six games into the season. After the game at Iowa on Oct. 10, Illinois is off before welcoming Wisconsin on Oct. 24. And, it?s always good to have extra prep time for the Badgers.

2015 Illinois schedule
Sept. 4 Kent State
Sept. 12 Western Illinois
Sept. 19 at North Carolina
Sept. 26 Middle Tennessee
Oct. 3 Nebraska
Oct. 10 at Iowa
Oct. 17 OFF
Oct. 24 Wisconsin
Oct. 31 at Penn State
Nov. 7 at Purdue
Nov. 14 Ohio State
Nov. 21 at Minnesota
Nov. 28 Northwestern


About Tom Dienhart senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

And if you want to leave a comment on this post, use the box below. All comments need to be approved by a moderator.