The 2017 season is still several months away. But we never stop looking forward here at the Big Ten blog.
It may be ridiculously early, but we’re examining what will be the must-win game and the potential trap game for each league team this fall. Up next: Illinois Fighting Illini.
Must-win game: Oct. 14 versus Rutgers. Lovie Smith and company beat two Big Ten teams during their first season at Illinois -- Rutgers and Michigan State. The Spartans aren’t on the 2017 schedule, but a repeat performance against the Scarlet Knights would be a good way to keep the program from the bottom rung of the league. New quarterback Chayce Crouch should have time to settle in by the midway point of the season. If the Illini have any shot of breaking their two-year bowl drought, it will have to come with a win over Rutgers. If nothing else, a victory over the only team ranked below the Illini on our end-of-year power rankings would be a sign that Smith’s team isn’t moving in the wrong direction during his second season in charge.
Trap game: Sept. 9 versus Western Kentucky. Plenty will be made of a trip to South Florida in Week 3 to face Charlie Strong and the USF Bulls. But don’t overlook fellow first-year coach Mike Sanford and his Western Kentucky team the previous week. Sanford, a young and sought-after offensive mind, takes over a program that led the nation in points per game last fall. Illinois finished 94th overall in points allowed. The Illini’s nonconference schedule may not carry a huge punch as far as brand names go, but having to deal with those two teams before jumping into league play could create a rough year in Champaign.