USA Today // Rick Osentoski

Fact or Fiction: Illini will win another game in 2016

Ryan Easterling and Jeremy Werner weigh in on whether Illinois will earn another conference victory this season

Ryan Easterling, Illini Inquirer recruiting reporter

FACT: Yeah, it's possible that Illinois finishes 0-fer the rest of the year, but the Big Ten West is still a mess.  Looking at the remainder of the schedule, Illinois (2-5) has Minnesota (5-2), Michigan State (2-5), and Iowa (5-3) at home with road contests at both Wisconsin (5-2) and Northwestern (4-3).

I don't feel particularly optimistic about Illinois' chances to pull off a win in either of their remaining road games, especially at Camp Randall in Madison against a stout Badgers team.  But the home slate presents Illinois with some opportunities to win that many would have ruled out as sure losses earlier in the year.

Minnesota, despite a solid record so far, has looked very vulnerable, and has had to scramble to win against some suspect teams.  Not to mention, the Gophers have played a fairly soft schedule so far this year (no OSU or Michigan, and no Nebraska yet).  Minnesota was taken to the wire this past weekend against a horrid Rutgers team, so this weekend's homecoming game may be the Illini's best shot at a win the rest of the season. If not Minnesota, the Illini host a reeling Michigan State team the following weekend.  Michigan State hosts rival Michigan this weekend, which may turn out to be yet another brutal game for the Spartans.  It's been far from a Sparty Party for the green machine from East Lansing this year.  With expectations again high, the Spartans have limped to a 2-5 record, recording wins over FCS opponent Furman and a well-documented 2-5 Notre Dame.  The Spartans' defense has constantly dealt with injuries, and the quarterback position has been a concern.  

The Illini's final shot at a home win, should they be unsuccessful in their first two attempts, comes when they host Iowa in mid-late November.  Iowa, who was originally thought to be the favorite in the B1G West, suffered a couple of surprising defeats (depending on how you look at it), most notably to FCS powerhouse North Dakota State (why do FBS teams keep scheduling them, anyway?.. but I digress).  Iowa has been fairly stout on defense, but the offense, short on pass-catching threats, has sputtered during crucial times, so it's not out of the question for Illinois to pull a bit of an upset there.  But the first two of the three home games set up best for a B1G win.

Should Illinois get a win over Minnesota this weekend, the momentum and confidence from the win could potentially be enough to propel them to a win over the Spartans, especially if Michigan State takes a physical beating against Michigan (rivalry games always seem to take a toll).  

Oh, and a lot of this probably depends on Illinois getting healthy at the QB position.  If they aren't able to do that, it could be a rough go the rest of the way out for the Orange and Blue.

Jeremy Werner, Illini Inquiirer publisher

FICTION: I'm torn on this one and may be playing a bit of devil's advocate (#EmbraceDebate?), but do I think Illinois should be favored in any of its remaining games? No. Have I seen enough from Illinois to think it can play a complete game against Big Ten opponents not named Rutgers? No.

ESPN's Football Power Index projects Illinois to win at least one more game, but the win likely would need to come in the next two weeks. As Easterling said, Minnesota has flaws (especially in its passing game) and its record is inflated by a weak schedule so far (though Illinois continues that trend). ESPN's FPI gives Illinois a 44 percent chance of winning the game.

But the FPI gives the Illini an even better chance of winning the following week against Michigan State (51.6 percent). Whodathunkit?! The Spartans look more like the Boilermakers this season, ranking near the bottom of the Big Ten in scoring offense and scoring defense (Illinois averages 2.8 more points per game and allows 3.6 fewer points than MSU). Road games at Wisconsin (8.1 percent) and Northwestern (23.3 percent) -- which seem to be two of the top three teams in the Big Ten West -- look really tough. And while Iowa (28.5 percent) hasn't had as much luck as last year, the Hawkeyes are still the superior team, especially in the trenches.

I'd rank the winnability of these games as such: 1. Minnesota; 2. Michigan State; 3. Iowa; 4. Northwestern; 5. Wisconsin. The quarterback situation obviously is a huge concern. Chayce Crouch likely gives this team its best chance to win due to his dynamism in the run game, and his shoulder injury is considered serious enough that it's feared it could keep him out the rest of the season. Wes Lunt likely will return (maybe this week) and gives the Illini an upgrade over third-stringer Jeff George Jr., but the Illini offense struggled when Lunt was healthy. And the Illini's run game faces big challenges against all five opponents remaining, which all rank in the top-eight of the conference (and top half of the FBS) in run defense.

And it's not like the defense is much better. The Illini are allowing 226.8 rushing yards per Big Ten game -- and face five power-run teams on the schedule. Oh, and their pass defense efficiency is in the bottom four of the Big Ten.

Illinois has two wins this season against teams that rank outside the top-100 in the Sagarin rankings: Rutgers (113) and Murray State (200). The Illini (76 in the Sagarin) lost to Purdue, which ranks 105th in the Sagarin. All their remaining opponents rank in the top-68 of the Sagarin.

Illinois will have opportunities to win one, two or maybe even three of the remaining games. Win this week and the Illini may find some momentum. I definitely expect them to be competitive with young players who are growing more comfortable by the week. They should have the opportunity to win another game.

But it feels like a lot "well, if this happens" have to go right for Illinois to earn another conference victory this season.

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