Schedule analysis: Illinois

Preseason practice is in full swing, and kickoff is just around the corner. To get you ready, we're analyzing every Big Ten team's complete 2013 schedule.

Next up in our series: Illinois.

Nonconference opponents (with 2012 records)

Aug. 31: Southern Illinois (6-5)

Sept. 7: Cincinnati (10-3)

Sept. 14: Washington* (7-6)

Sept. 28: Miami (Ohio) (4-8)

* -- at Soldier Field in Chicago

Leaders Division games

Oct. 19: Wisconsin

Nov. 2: at Penn State

Nov. 9: at Indiana

Nov. 16: Ohio State

Nov. 23: at Purdue

Crossover games

Oct. 5: at Nebraska

Oct. 26: Michigan State

Nov. 30: Northwestern

No plays




Gut-check game: The Illini don't get to ease into Big Ten play by any means. They open conference action at Nebraska, visiting Lincoln for the first time since 1985. Tim Banks' defense will be put on the spot against one of the nation's top offenses, and a team that carries a 14-game Big Ten losing streak into 2013 will have to dig deep to stay competitive.

Trap game: When you're coming off a 2-10 season, nothing can really be classified as a trap game. The closest thing to it on this schedule appears to be the game against Miami (Ohio). It arrives after two tough nonconference games and a bye week, and it comes the week before the Illini start conference play.

Snoozer: At least the Southern Illinois is an in-state game, and it is the opener. But it won't tell us much about whether the Illini have truly improved over last year.

Noncon challenge: Both the Cincinnati and Washington games represent tough challenges for the Illini, but the latter may prove more important. Many are pegging the Huskies to be one of the most improved teams in the Pac-12, and Illinois really wants to turn in a solid performance while hopefully gaining some exposure in Chicago. Laying an egg there would only contribute to pessimism around the program.

Telltale stretch: Tim Beckman's team opens Big Ten play like this: at Nebraska, vs. Wisconsin, vs. Michigan State and at Penn State. Yikes. If Illinois plays like it did in 2012, all four of those games could get ugly.

Analysis: A team that desperately needs to build some confidence and momentum doesn't get too many breaks in this schedule. If the offense, defense and special teams haven't made major steps forward, a 2-6 start -- at best -- is a real possibility. Illinois really needs to win one of those two tough nonconference games, and snapping that Big Ten losing streak is a must. But even the Indiana and Purdue games are on the road, and Northwestern looks to have zoomed way ahead in the Land of Lincoln rivalry. Wins could be hard to come by for the second straight year.

More schedule analysis:

Legends: Iowa | Michigan | Minnesota

Leaders: Purdue | Penn State