Five Games to Watch in 2013

Tracking the list of the top five Illinois games to watch in 2013.

Tracking the list of the top five Illinois games to watch in 2013.

No. 5 - Sat., Nov. 23 @ Purdue - West Lafayette, Ind., Ross-Ade Stadium

Hold on now; don't call me crazy for this pick.

I know the Boilermakers had a losing record last season. I know they have a new head coach in Darrell Hazell. I know they're not a glamorous team. I know hardly anybody outside of Champaign and East Lafayette will care about this game.

All of those reasons are exactly why I picked Purdue for this list.

Under the direction of Hazell, Purdue won't be expected to do much in 2013. The ceiling is probably somewhere near what happend last season, and going through the transition to a new coach won't make matters any easier. So technically, both the Illinois and Purdue programs will be in similar re-build modes this fall. And the game takes place near the end of the season, giving both teams time to both install their plan and get better.

See where I'm going with this?

What I'm getting at is, if Purdue beats Illinois this season, it will show that it's program is already moving ahead of what Coach Tim Beckman is trying to instill at Illinois. For Beckman, in the second year leading the program facing an upstart coach of a team that isn't supposed to be very good (and hasn't been very good for some time), a loss will not be a good sign for the sake of progression and moving in the right direction.

That's why it's an important weekend. It's the perfect example of a barometer game.

Last time: Purdue 20, Illinois 17 - Nov. 17, 2012 - Champaign, Ill. Memorial Stadium

An Akeem Hunt 63-yard touchdown catch gave Purdue a 13-3 lead in the third quarter on a play where quarterback Robert Marve rolled to the right and threw back across the field.

Hunt raced down the sideline untouched for the score.

The Illini scored 14 second half points in an attempt to come back, capped by quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase's short touchdown run in the fourth quarter. That made the score 20-17, the eventual final score as the comeback attempt fell short.

Cincinnati - 09/07/2013, 11. a.m. - Memorial Stadium - Champaign, Ill.

The Bearcats open 2013 with two Big Ten opponents -- Purdue and Illinois -- both programs that are in re-build mode after changing coaches, the Illini prior to 2012 and the Boilermakers this offseason.

Cincinnatti, itself, is in transition after Butch Jones left for Tennessee, with Tommy Tuberville leaving Texas Tech to take his place.

For Illinois, the game has no conference ramification, nor is it a rivalry game. But it's winnable, vaulting it up the list of games to watch entering this season.

Jones guided the Bearcats to a 10-3 record last year, defeating Duke 48-34 in late December in the Belk Bowl. Jones, clearly, had the program in good shape and moving in the right direction. His loss will surely be felt, but given Tuberville's track record (which wasn't helped by his time at Tech) and the Bearcats easy conference schedule, look for Cincinnati to continue the positive march.

But Illinois catches the Bearcats early, the second game of the season, and at home in Memorial Stadium. Playing amid a stretch of five out of six games in the state of Illinois, the Illini have a chance to gain some momentum in the out-of-conference schedule, to gain some victories to help morale and show progress.

Wins in the Big Ten won't be easy to come by. But the favorable OOC schedule gives Illinois a chance to start off on solid footing. That didn't happen last season, as the snowball got rolling after losses at Arizona State and to Louisiana Tech, two teams I say should have never been scheduled to begin with.

Washington in Chicago and Cincinnati in Champaign don't exactly make the most sense either, at least to me, but are more manageable due to location and timing.

Last time: Cincinnati 49, Illinois 36 - Nov. 27, 2009 - Nippert Stadium, Cincinnati, OH

Senior quarterback Tony Pike passed for six touchdowns -- five in the first half -- as then No. 5 Cincinnati defeated Illinois in a game that saw nearly 900 yards of total offense.

While the Illini defense couldn't handle Pike and Company, quarterback Juice Williams put up points after retuning from an injury. He threw for three touchdowns and added another on the ground. During the game, Williams became the sixth player in conference history with 10,000 yards of total offense.

But it wasn't enough, as Cincinnati took the win on Senior Day.

I don't necessarily think Illinois-Washington is a good matchup. I'm not sure it will be a good game.

It might or it might not.

But the Sept. 14 contest is on my list because it's at least an attempt to make some noise where there probably wasn't going to be much noise otherwise.

The game is going to be in Chicago's Soldier Field, a stadium I've never been to before. You could take away the forward pass for a day, and I'd still make the trip up to see a game in that venue.

Also, the game isn't at 11 a.m. -- it's at 6 p.m., televised on the Big Ten Network. That's unique when you consider two of the first five Illinois games are already slated for the early morning wake-up call. And with Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio) still TBD, I'd be willing to bet alarm clocks will be blasting awfully early in late August and early September.

I'm all about the Rise & Grind, but damn.

So, Illinois gets the Huskies in a major market at a normal football-playing time of day. Yay!

As of right now, would I pick the Illini to win? I don't think so. Washington was 7-6 last season, but does return quarterback Keith Price, who had 2,728 yards passing and 19 touchdown strikes as a junior.

It's June, so I can't say what will happen on the field. But I do commend Illinois for scheduling the game in Chicago, grabbing a not-so-great Pac-however-many-teams-there-are-in-that-conference opponent and forcing both the Big Ten Network and Windy City recruits to at least know something is going on.

I'm more a fan of weak scheduling in September. When I say weak, I mean, the weakest bunch of opponents you can pay a couple hundred thousand bucks to come to Illinois and take a beating.

But if you insist on slating a little name recognition and risking a loss, you might as well figure out a stage and platform to maximize the attention gained from it.

Illinois has done that with this Washington matchup. Here's to it not being much fuss over nothing.

All-time record: Washington leads 5-4
Last time: Washington 31, Illinois 11 - 1972 @ Seattle

No. 2 - Ohio State - Sat, Nov. 16 - Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.

Illinois could be playing host to the No. 1 team in the country when Ohio State rolls into town in mid-November.

OK, so it's hard to read that last sentence in late June and take it seriously. But the Buckeyes expect to be in national title contention this year after going undefeated in Urban Meyer's first season in 2012.

There's enough talent on the roster to believe it can happen. And the schedule may as well be a big, frosted, fluffy cake.

Quarterback Braxton Miller finished fifth in the Heisman voting as a sophomore, a year in which he passed for 2,039 yards, rushed for 1,271 and had 28 total touchdowns.

Miller was especially explosive against the Illini in Columbus. He finished 12-of-20 with 226 yards passing, 73 yards on the ground and three scores.

I'm not exactly inching out on a limb here, but Miller will probably be the best player Illinois faces all year. So… the Buckeyes are gonna be good. They have one of the country's best players. And they'll have a lot on the line. If that's not enough to get Illini fans scared/excited, I don't know what would.

Hey, I know last season's 52-22 loss doesn't make calling for an upset easy to do. It's definitely not something I'd personally put on Twitter.

But depending on how the season goes, if Illinois shows improvement and some semblance of forward progress, perhaps fans will wake up on the day of the Ohio State game and think, 'how sweet would it be to take those guys down tonight?'

That kind of anticipation is what college football is all about. And it's the kind of feeling you guys reading this deserve.

Series record: Ohio State leads 65-30-4
Last time: Ohio State 52, Illinois 22 - Nov. 3, 2012 - Columbus, OH

The Buckeyes racked up 567 total yards compared to Illinois' 170, as quarterback Braxton Miller and tailback Carlos Hyde combined for six touchdowns in the 52-22 victory.

In total Ohio State had 330 yards rushing and 32 first downs.

While Illinois didn't make major mistakes on offense (one turnover), the unit simply couldn't move the football. The Illini went 2-for-14 on third down, with short possessions tiring out an already spent defense.

The win was Ohio State's 10 in a row. The loss was Illinois' sixth straight loss and 11th consecutive in the Big Ten.

No. 1 - Northwestern - Sat., Nov., 30 - Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.

Last year's score is reason enough.

50-14. That's how bad Northwestern beat Illinois in 2012. And yeah, it was the last game of the year. And yeah, the Illini had lost the previous eight games. And yeah, it had been 13 Big Ten contests in a row since a conference win.

But still, it was Northwestern, the in-state rival. Instead of a chance to send the seniors out on a good note or help improve moral among the fan base, the game was an ugly end to an even uglier means.

So last year's performance should be reason enough for motivation for this season's contest. I'm sure it will be.

The game can't be confined to a redemption theme though. I'm talking about the importance of perception of program. Status in the Big Ten. Standing within the state.

What all that impacts is recruiting, which is, of course, how you ultimately have success. The Illinois staff is pushing the 'our state, our team' motto. Hard. And from the time I've spent talking to Illinois high school players, it's working. But 50-14 losses to the other Big Ten school in the state can't happen anymore.

Talking the talk in recruiting can get you in the door. Showing is better than telling, though, when it comes to getting the names signed to LOIs on the first Wednesday in February.

Northwestern has now won seven of the last 10 meetings. None of that will matter if Illinois gets a win this year.

Good runs over the course of a decade have to start with the first victory. Big changes in perceptions, after all, happen after small steps in the right direction.

All-time record: Illinois leads 54-46-5
Last time: Northwestern 50, Illinois 14 - Ryan Field - Evanston, Ill.

Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter threw for three touchdowns and tailback Venric Mark rushed for 127 yards as the Wildcats crushed Illinois 50-14.

The loss snapped an Illini two-game winning steak in the rivalry game. Illinois committed four turnovers and had eight penalties in the loss -- it's ninth straight and 14th in a row in the Big Ten.

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