Preview & Pick: Illinois at No. 3 Michigan

Illinois enters Ann Arbor as massive underdog with opportunity to pull off possibly the biggest upset in program history

Illinois (2-4, 1-2) at #3 Michigan (6-0, 2-0)

Time: 2:30 p.m. CT

TV: BTN -- Kevin Kugler (play by play), Matt Millen (analyst) and Lisa Byington (reporter)

Series: Michigan leads the all-time series 69-23-2 and has a 33-11-1 advantage in Ann Arbor. The conference foes have not played since Oct. 13, 2012 (when Michigan routed the Illini 45-0), the longest hiatus in the series since 1919.

Vegas betting line: Michigan (-38)

Last week: Illinois won 24-7 at Rugers (2-4, 0-3), and Michigan was on a bye. The Wolverines routed Rutgers 78-0 two weeks ago.

Numbers to know

10.3: Points per game allowed by Michigan, making the Wolverines the No. 1 scoring defense in the country.

2.9: Yards per rushing attempt allowed by Michigan, ranking fourth overall among FBS teams.

4.6: Yards per pass attempt allowed by Michigan, best in the country.

50.0: Points per game for Michigan, making the Wolverines the No. 3 scoring offense in the country.

+1.33: Turnover margin per game for Illinois, which ranks fourth among FBS teams and first among Big Ten teams. The Illini's five giveaways are the seventh-lowest mark in the FBS.

9.3: Yards per carry for Illini redshirt freshman running back Reggie Corbin, which ranks third among FBS players averaging at least five carries per game.

12.0: Tackles per game for Illini redshirt freshman safety Patrick Nelson during Big Ten play, which ranks tied for first in the conference.

.122: Opponent third-down conversion percentage against the Michigan defense, the top mark in the country by more than five percent.

.274: Third down-conversion rate of the Illinois offense, which ranks 121st among 128 FBS.

Wolverines to watch

The best player in college football? Peppers is making a rare but legitimate case by a defender for the Heisman. The former five-star prospect is a freak athlete who plays all over the field and impacts the game in so many ways. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound linebacker/safety, who is projected to be a top-10 NFL Draft pick, has 38 tackles, 10.0 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, six quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. He also returns punts (17.8 yards per return), returns kicks (31.7 yards per return) and even carries the ball (five carries, 98 yards, two touchdowns), mostly out of the Wildcat formation. Don't be shocked if Jim Harbaugh gets Peppers more touches than usual to build that Heisman campaign.

Maybe the most complete tight end in college football, Butt has overcome all the name jokes with elite play. A team co-captain, Butt is the team's second leading receiver (23 receptions, 270 yards and three TDs). The 6-foot-6, 250-pound senior a highly-skilled receiver and solid blocker. He should be a high draft pick in April.

Lewis has missed three games due to injury, but the 5-foot-10 senior cornerback is third on the career pass breakups list at Michigan and is just seven behind the career record holder, Leon Hall (43 PBUs). He's a fluid athlete who sticks on receivers' hips and is really aggressive in making plays on the ball. Though he's undersized, he's physical in run support too.

The preseason All-American defensive tackle is a team co-captain and likely high NFL Draft pick. He leads the Wolverines with four sacks. Wormley is massive (6-foot-4, 300 pounds) but is a very good athlete with good lateral quickness. He mostly lines up at end but can play on the interior too. He's a likely 3-4 defensive end at the next level.

Michigan has two really good wide receivers who should both hear their names called next April: Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh. The latter is the big-play threat. Darboh leads the team with 25 receptions, 400 yards and five touchdowns.

Michigan has a five-headed rushing attack -- six, if you include Peppers. Chris Evans leads the team with 400 yards (8.3 yards per attempt). Starter De'Veon Smith has the most carries (61 for 336 yards). Khalid Hill leads the team with seven rushing touchdowns (on 13 carries), and Karan Higdon is second with five touchdowns (35 carries, 253 yards). But Illini fans will have most interest in former Joliet Catholic star and USC transfer Ty Isaac, who chose Michigan over Illinois during his second recruitment. Isaac may have been the bellcow at Illinois. But he's a good contributor (297 yards, 4 TDs on 53 carries).

Keys to the game

1. Get tricky: The Illini offense is banged up and not very talented, especially at wide reciever. To find space against the best defense in the country, the Illini are going to need deception. Flea flickers, running back passes, whatever. The Illini just aren't good enough to win one-on-one battles. And you might as well try to have a little fun during a likely loss.

2. Stay healthy: With injuries to key players already, Illinois needs to try to get out of this clean. Harbaugh wants to dominate opponents. Michigan is a punishing, physical team, so Illinois will take some lumps. But Illinois needs to escape healthy if it is going to have the chance to win another game this season.

Illini in the spotlight

Illinois hasn't started three quarterbacks in the same season since 2009, when Juice Williams (10 starts) Jacob Charest (one) and Eddie McGee (one) each took a game's first snap. Due to injuries to normal starter Wes Lunt (back) and last week's starter Chayce Crouch (shoulder), the Illini may start their third quarterback in as many weeks. Redshirt freshman Jeff George Jr.'s only playing experience came in mop-up duty against Murray State. He didn't even throw a pass in that game, only handing it off to running backs. Now the son of 1989 No. 1 NFL Draft pick Jeff George Sr. may be thrown into the wolverine's den at the Big House. Like his father, George Jr. has a big arm, flicking passes far down the field with ease. George Jr. had a great spring-game performance against second- and third-string defenders. His issue is inconsistency and size (205 pounds). George Jr. also isn't much of a running threat, though he is more fluid than Lunt. Godspeed, JG Jr.

Trenard Davis started fall camp as a cornerback. Midway through camp, he switched to wide receiver. This week, he started taking snaps at quarterback -- a sign that Illinois has issues on the quarterback depth chart. Davis is a very good athlete who played some quarterback as a senior at American Heritage School in Florida. He'd likely be a Wildcat option, but he does have a decent arm and could be a trick-play threat. Running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn may make sense as a Wildcat option too.


Prediction? Paaaaaaain.

Michigan leads the country in scoring margin (plus-39.7 points per game). Michigan beat Hawaii 63-3, Central Florida 51-14 and Penn State 49-10. Michigan beat Rutgers 78-0. Illinois may have beaten Rutgers 24-7, but the game was a lot closer than that (the Darius Mosely fourth-quarter pick-six likely was a 14-point swing).

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This one will get ugly for Illinois -- the question is just how ugly. Michigan is just bigger, stronger and faster everywhere. How many Illini would start for Michigan? Maybe two: Dawuane Smoot and Hardy Nickerson

And Jim Harbaugh will show no mercy. Nor should he. This is Big Ten football. If you can't stop the opponent, that's your problem. But expect Harbaugh to keep the foot on the gas pedal. He's building a brand, and blow outs attract recruits. He's building a case for the college football playoff, and blow outs help that resume.

Illinois' offense is greatly overmatched. Illinois' defense is greatly overmatched. Even the special teams is greatly overmatched. Staying within a few touchdowns for a half would be a moral victory.

Simply put, this game features a national title contender celebrating homecoming against one of the worst power-five conference teams in the country.

ESPN's Football Power Index gives Illinois a 1.4 percent chance of victory. The Vegas line is 38 points. Both seem a bit generous for Illinois.

Michigan 56, Illinois 3

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