- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Illinois has finalized its 2015, 2016 and 2017 nonconference schedules. How strong you think they are will depend on your view of North Carolina.
The Illini announced on Thursday that they would play a home-and-home series with the Tar Heels in 2015 and '16. The first game will be in Chapel Hill on Sept. 19, 2015, with UNC coming to Champaign on Sept. 10, 2016.
If you're not too jazzed about North Carolina as an opponent, well, there's not much else that will get you excited on these schedules. Take a look:
Sept. 5: Kent State
Sept. 12: Western Illinois
Sept. 19: at North Carolina
Sept. 26: Middle Tennessee
Sept. 3: Murray State
Sept. 10: North Carolina
Sept. 17: Western Michigan
Sept. 2: Ball State
Sept. 9: at South Florida
Sept. 16: Western Kentucky
The Big Ten is making a push for upgraded nonconference schedules throughout the league, but Illinois isn't exactly embracing that wholeheartedly. North Carolina could be a solid team by 2015 because Larry Fedora is a good coach. But just look at that 2017 schedule.
Illinois AD Mike Thomas said in a school release that the program wants to keep an opponent from the five power conferences on the schedule every season. That doesn't happen in '17, unless USF somehow finds its way into the ACC or Big 12. The Illini are also playing an FCS team in '16 despite the conference's intention to eliminate those games.
Remember that the Big Ten goes to a nine-game conference schedule in 2016. Illinois is not really in the business of competing for national championships or the College Football Playoff right now, so you can understand why the Illini might want to take it easy outside of those nine Big Ten showdowns. The program is signaling that the first priority is to schedule some wins so it can get to a bowl. Minnesota has done the same thing of late, and the strategy does make sense.
Still, there's not much here that an Illinois fan can get pumped up about when dreaming of future seasons.