- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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What does the schedule have in store for first-year Illinois coach Tim Beckman? Let's take a look at the Fighting Illini's 2012 slate, which kicks off exactly one month from today.
Nonconference opponents (with 2011 records)
Sept. 1: Western Michigan (7-6)
Sept. 8: at Arizona State (6-7)
Sept. 15: Charleston Southern (0-11)
Sept. 22: Louisiana Tech (8-5)
Leaders division games
Sept. 29: Penn State
Oct. 6: at Wisconsin
Oct. 27: Indiana
Nov. 3: at Ohio State
Nov. 17: Purdue
Oct. 13: at Michigan
Nov. 10: Minnesota
Nov. 24: at Northwestern (protected)
Gut-check game: Penn State. While this matchup got a lot spicier after Beckman's aggressive recruiting approach with Penn State's roster, it always meant a lot to Illinois. The Illini open Big Ten play on their home field before extremely difficult trips to Madison and Ann Arbor in back-to-back weeks. They could be staring at an 0-3 start to Big Ten play if they can't knock off the Lions in Champaign. Penn State scored a late touchdown to edge Illinois 10-7 last year at Beaver Stadium.
Trap game: Indiana. The game falls between trips to Ann Arbor and Columbus. Although Indiana went 1-11 last year, the Hoosiers should be improved, and Illinois can't afford to look past Kevin Wilson's squad. The road tests could take their toll on the Illini, and the team's health for the Indiana game will be worth monitoring. This is a Leaders division home game, and if Illinois wants to make any noise in the race, it has to prevail.
Snoozer: Charleston Southern. I ranked this as the least compelling of the Big Ten's 48 nonconference games this season. Charleston Southern went 0-11 in the FCS last season. Illinois will roll. Wake me when it's over.
Non-con challenge: Aside from Charleston Southern, Illinois must be on its toes during the nonconference portion. Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder will test the Illini secondary, while Louisiana Tech won the WAC championship in 2011. But the pick here is Arizona State. Big Ten teams rarely fare well when they head west in September, and Illinois must contend with an up-tempo Sun Devils offense under new coach Todd Graham and most likely extreme heat in the Valley of the Sun.
Telltale stretch: After the trip to Ann Arbor, Illinois plays three of its next four at home (Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue) and three of four within the Leaders division (Indiana, Ohio State, Purdue). This is a chance for Illinois to make a move in what could be a wide-open division with both Ohio State and Penn State banned from postseason play. Indiana is pretty much a must-win. Illinois has given Ohio State some trouble over the years, but a victory in Columbus will be tough. The Purdue game likely will determine which team challenges Wisconsin in the division. Minnesota has been a big headache for Illinois as of late, winning the teams' past two contests and six of the past eight.
Analysis: This isn't Michigan's schedule, but Illinois has few easy games on its 2012 slate. The Illini should be tested at least once during nonconference play, and their Big Ten road schedule -- Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State and Northwestern -- is among the toughest in the league. Penn State is a major swing game, especially with the forthcoming trips to both Madison and Ann Arbor. If Illinois can defend its home turf, particularly within the division, it should be in good shape for another bowl berth. But a few home losses could leave Beckman's squad reeling by November. If Illinois can pull off a road upset or two, it could be right in the mix for the division crown.
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