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Friday, August 8, 2014
Schedule analysis: Illinois

By Brian Bennett

Just a few more weeks before the games kick off. Until then, we're looking forward and analyzing every Big Ten team's 2014 schedule.

Up next: Illinois

Nonconference schedule (with 2013 records)

Aug. 30: Youngstown State (8-4)
Sept. 6: Western Kentucky (8-4)
Sept. 13: at Washington (9-4)
Sept. 20: Texas State (6-6)

West Division games

Sept. 27: at Nebraska
Oct. 4: Purdue
Oct. 11: at Wisconsin
Oct. 25: Minnesota
Nov. 15: Iowa
Nov. 29: at Northwestern

Crossover games

Nov. 1: at Ohio State
Nov. 22: Penn State

No-plays

Indiana
Maryland
Michigan
Michigan State
Rutgers

Gut-check game: In the last two years against Wisconsin, Illinois has given up 87 points and lost by a combined 41 points. An Illini defense that was one of the worst in the country against the run last season goes up against Melvin Gordon, Corey Clement and that massive Badgers O-line. On the road. Yeah, that's gut-check time.

Trap game: While Illinois can't afford complacency in any of its games, the Purdue game at home on Oct. 4 sticks out like a trap. It's sandwiched between difficult road games at Nebraska and Wisconsin. And remember that the Illini only won by four points in West Lafayette last year, the Boilers' closest shave in a winless Big Ten season. This is not a game Tim Beckman's club can overlook.

Snoozer: Take your pick between the three nonconference opponents not named Washington. None of the three figure to be hideously uncompetitive, but they also don't offer many interesting storylines, either.

Nonconference challenge: It's hard to fault the Illinois nonconference schedule too much because of that trip to Washington. The Huskies outclassed Beckman's team last year in a 34-24 win at Soldier Field, and now they get the Illini on their turf. UDub could have the element of surprise on its side as well with new coach Chris Petersen in charge.    

Analysis: It might just be bowl or bust this year for Beckman, who is 6-18 in two years in Champaign with one Big Ten victory. If so, his fate will boil down to league play. The Illini should go 3-1 in the nonconference slate unless disaster strikes. Can they triple their Big Ten win total from the past two years combined in order to reach the postseason? That won't be easy, with a crossover game at Ohio State and road trips to Nebraska and Wisconsin. Illinois likely will have to get those three wins against the group that includes Purdue, Penn State, Minnesota and Iowa at Memorial Stadium and rival Northwestern on the road. It's certainly doable -- the Illini very nearly beat the Nittany Lions and Wildcats last year, after all -- especially if the defense makes significant improvement. But the margin for error is undoubtedly slim.