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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The book is closed on 2008, and as part of our look ahead at 2009, it's time to take a team-by-team look at the schedules. The analysis begins with Illinois, one of two teams without a fully finalized nonconference slate. This marks the final Big Ten season without a bye week, which returns for good in 2010.
Here's what we know right now about the Illini:
Sept. 5 Missouri (at St. Louis)
Sept. 12 Illinois State
Nov. 21 Fresno State
Nov. 28 TBA
My take: An Illinois spokesperson last week was unable to confirm a fourth nonconference game at Cincinnati on Nov. 28, but the two schools have been talking and could sign a contract soon. Should the Illini add the Bearcats, they would have a strong case for owning the Big Ten's toughest non-league slate. Missouri loses several key pieces (Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman) but always shows up to face the Illini, who haven't beaten the Tigers since 1994. A season-opening win would be huge for quarterback Juice Williams and Illinois, who don't have many sure things this fall.
BIG TEN SCHEDULE
Sept. 26 at Ohio State
Oct. 3 Penn State
Oct. 10 Michigan State
Oct. 17 at Indiana
Oct. 24 at Purdue
Oct. 31 Michigan
Nov. 7 at Minnesota
Nov. 14 Northwestern
Byes: Iowa, Wisconsin
My take: The start to league play is brutal, making a 2-0 start to non-league play all the more important for Illinois. The good news is that Illinois has won in Columbus, and an upset Sept. 26 could set the stage for a major push. Illinois' road schedule other than Ohio State isn't too bad, so if it can defend the turf at Memorial Stadium and pick up a marquee win or two, a solid season certainly is within reach. The Illini could be 1-3 when Michigan State comes to town, but a 3-1 start will set them up for some pretty big things.