Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, May 3, 2017

Lovie Smith is looking to take the next step in the development of an Illinois program with just one bowl since 2011. His debut was filled with more downs than ups, as the Fighting Illini went 3-9 overall and 2-7 in the Big Ten. Illinois lost its last three games and five of its last six. And questions hover over the Illini in 2017. A big one: Who will be the quarterback? The front seven on defense has some big holes to fill, too. The schedule also is filled with myriad challenges.


Here is a look at the 2017 Illinois schedule.

Toughest non-conference game: Illinois plays at South Florida on a Friday night on Sept. 15, the Illini?s third game of the season and first on the road. This will be a tall task vs. a likely Top 25 squad from the American Athletic Conference. The Bulls are coming off an 11-2 season but have a new coach in ex-Texas leader Charlie Strong after Willie Taggart took the Oregon job. And USF has a top signal-caller in Quinton Flowers, a monster dual-threat who will pose a big challenge for the Fighting Illini.

Toughest conference game: Illinois? second-to-last game of the season is at Ohio State, the bellwether program in the Big Ten. Who knows what type of shape the Fighting Illini will be in when they venture to Columbus to battle for the Illibuck Trophy. The Buckeyes have won eight straight in the series. The last time Illinois won? It was 2007, when the Illini knocked off the No. 1 Buckeyes in Columbus, 28-21, behind Juice Williams.

Who they don?t play: Illinois gets a nice break, missing Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Maryland. The Nittany Lions are the defending league champ, while the Wolverines are rolling under Jim Harbaugh, who is in his third season. Oh, and the Terrapins are on the rise under DJ Durkin. Yes, the Spartans are coming off a 3-9 season, but you figure they will be better in 2017.

Easiest game: It?s difficult to call any game ?easy? for a program coming off a 3-9 season in Lovie Smith?s debut. But, you have to like Illinois? chances when Rutgers comes to Champaign on Oct. 14. The Scarlet Knights are in Year Two of a rebuild under Chris Ash, going 2-10 last year and finishing with nine defeats in succession. Illinois won at Rutgers last season, 24-7.

Toughest stretch: Illinois will be tested early with a challenging three-game run that begins with a Friday night game at South Florida. The Fighting Illini are off the next week before coming home to play on another Friday night, this time vs. Nebraska on Sept. 29. That?s followed by a trip to Iowa on Oct. 7.

Best chance to be upset: Illinois needs to be careful when Western Kentucky comes to Memorial Stadium on Sept. 9 for the second game of the season. The Hilltoppers lost coach Jeff Brohm, who took the Purdue job. But he had Western Kentucky rolling, going 31-10 the last three seasons with three bowl games and two league titles. The Hilltoppers won C-USA in 2016, going 11-3.

Best chance to pull an upset: The Fighting Illini will be underdogs on many occasions this fall. Perhaps they can take down Minnesota when the Illini travel to Minneapolis on Oct. 21. The Golden Gophers have a new coach in Illinois native P.J. Fleck, who has some work to do. Who will be the QB for Minnesota? And questions loom at receiver and in the secondary, too. Perhaps ? just maybe ? Illinois can steal this one. The Gophers have won the last two meetings.

Must win: This is a program still in transition under Smith, so wins may be few and far between. Illinois figures to have a good chance to knock off Purdue in the battle for the Cannon when it visits West Lafayette on Nov. 4. Deposed Purdue coach Darrell Hazell went 3-24 in the Big Ten from 2013-16-but two of those victories were vs. Illinois, including a 34-31 OT win in Champaign in 2016. The Fighting Illini have won the last two times they visited Ross-Ade Stadium.

Bye week: Sept. 23. It comes too early, as Illinois will have played just three games-all of its non-conference action. The off week will allow the Illini extra time to prep for the Big Ten season, which kicks off on a Friday night with a visit from Nebraska. No doubt, the Cornhuskers will want revenge after losing in Champaign the last time they visited in 2015, as Illinois scored 14 fourth-quarter points to take a 14-13 decision.

Sept. 2 Ball State
Sept. 9 Western Kentucky
Sept. 15 at South Florida (Friday)
Sept. 23 OFF
Sept. 29 Nebraska (Friday)
Oct. 7 at Iowa
Oct. 14 Rutgers
Oct. 21 at Minnesota
Oct. 28 Wisconsin
Nov. 4 at Purdue
Nov. 11 Indiana
Nov. 18 at Ohio State
Nov. 25 Northwestern