IOWA CITY, Iowa - The Big Ten West Division makes little sense. Results vary greatly from week to week setting up would could be a wild home stretch.
Handicapping Iowa's game at Illinois Saturday (11 a.m. CT, BTN) illustrates the difficulty in predicting the future based on previous outcomes. It's like Forest Gump's box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get.
"I think (Iowa and Minnesota) are very similar," Illini Coach Tim Beckman said. "It's Big Ten football. (The Hawkeyes) offensive line is extremely athletic. Their defensive front is athletic. You can see that those kids have been involved in that program. They're used to running what they do offensively and they're used to running what they do defensively and they've been pretty successful at doing it."
Illinois still is trying to climb the conference ladder in Year 3 under Beckman. They're 2-19 in the Big Ten during his tenure.
"For us to be successful and to reach the goals that these seniors have put in front of this football team, then we've got to get to six (wins)," Beckman said.
To do that and become bowl eligible for the first time since 2011 and just the fourth time since '00, the Illini must win two of their last three games. Penn State comes to Champaign next week before Illinois finishes up at Northwestern Nov. 29.
"I think our seniors have been hungry since day one," Beckman said. "I think that they've really put it on their shoulders to get this program back to the winning ways. I'm really proud to be involved with them. I don't think that they put any more pressure [on themselves] ... we want to continue to play together and be with these seniors as long as I can."
The Illini's 28-24 win against Minnesota came after a bye week. They had last Saturday off following a 55-14 loss at Ohio State on Nov. 1.
Iowa is set to face its fourth opponent in a row coming off a bye week. It's 1-2 in those games with the win coming against Northwestern when the Hawkeyes also enjoyed the previous Saturday off.
"We seem to be the object of (scheduling) quirks, I guess," said Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz, whose teams have open the Big Ten season on the road in 12 of his 16 years leading the program. "But we're not the lone ranger. It's like anything, if you want to use that as a crutch, you can use it. But it still gets down to who plays the best Saturday.
"And certainly they've had a little bit more opportunity to rest or get ready. And I'm sure they'll do a good job taking advantage of that. We have ample time to get ready. It's not like this game is being played on Wednesday or Thursday. So it's really about what we do this week in terms of our preparation and most importantly what we do at 11:00 on Saturday."
Illinois boasts the weapons on offense to challenge a Hawkeye defense that has allowed an average of 31.3 points and 231.0 rushing yards in its last four contests. Quarterback Wes Lunt, who returns after a three-game absence due to injury, receivers Mike Dudek and Geronimo Allison, and running back Josh Ferguson lead a strong group of skill players.
"They're going to throw the football, we know that," Ferentz said. "They do a lot of different things. They make you prepare for a lot of different things and looks.
"Certainly it changes quarterback to quarterback. But the receivers are all very good. They're built to throw the football, and they've got good receivers and Lunt is a really good thrower."
Beckman could call on backup quarterbacks Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey to spell Lunt and show Iowa a different look. They're capable of running read option, an attack that hurt the Hawkeyes against Iowa State, Maryland and Minnesota.
"You have to prepare for all three, all three are a little different chapters and on top of that they've got a lot of whatever Coach (Hayden) Fry called them, exotics," Ferentz said. "There's a lot of different things that you're going to see. You can't practice them -- first of all, we break the 20-hour rule; and secondly you'd have a dead team Saturday. But you gotta cover a lot of stuff, because they certainly have a volume of things that you have to get prepared for. But the bottom line the game will probably get decided on the meat and potatoes of it and every quarterback is a little different chapter for them."
Ferguson and Arizona State's D.J. Foster are the only active FBS running backs with more than 1,500 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in their careers. Dudek comes into Saturday with 45 receptions for 707 yards while Allison, a transfer from Iowa Western Community College, has 504 yards and five touchdowns on 33 catches.
The Illini holds an advantage if it boils down to a game of field position. Punter Justin DuVernois leads the Big Ten and ranks sixth nationally in average (45.7 YPP).
Time, TV, Announcers: 11:01 a.m. CT on BTN with Cory Provus, J. Leman and Rebecca Haarlow.
The Series: Illinois leads 38-29-2.
Betting Line: Vegas Insiders showed Iowa opening as a 3-point favorite. As of Wednesday, the Hawkeyes moved to a 4-point pick at the Vegas Mirage. The total sat at 56.0.
-Illinois is 2-5 Against The Spread in its last 7 games overall.
-Iowa is 8-2 ATS in its last 10 road games.
Match-up to Watch: Iowa's poor play against the run this season has been unexpected and debilitating. Minnesota shredded the Hawkeyes on the ground and then torched them through the air.
While the Illini don't have the same stoutness up front on either side of the ball, they're capable of putting points up in a hurry. And Ferguson presents the kind of match-up problem seen earlier this season when UNI's David Johnson lit up the Iowa linebackers.
The Hawkeyes must play sound assignment football to honor Ferguson's ability to carry the ball and also catch it. If they focus too much on him, Lunt will sting them deep with bombs to Dudek and Allison.
Take Note: In Big Ten games only, the Hawkeyes lead the conference in pass defense, allowing 121.4 passing yards per game. Iowa's pass offense ranks No. 2 in the league with 232.8 yard per game.
Take Note, Take Two: Illinois has faced the 16th-toughest schedule in the nation thus far, with opponents posting a 37-21 record vs. FBS foes (.617).
Non-Sports Related: Illinois is home to the world's largest bottle of catsup.
Did You Know?: The world's tallest man was born in Alton, IL. Robert Pershing Wadlow was 8'11", weight 491 pounds and wore a size 37 shoe
Did You Also Know?: Twinkies were invented in River Forest, IL, in 1930.
Illinois Wins If… it can run the ball.
Iowa Wins If… it can stop the run.
Overview: Many people will use the teams' results against Minnesota to gauge what to expect in this game. As we said in the lead, it's a flawed formula.
Yes, if these squads perform as they did against the Gophers, Illinois clearly would be the choice here. That's an enormous "if."
As inconsistent as Iowa's offense has been, it's feasted on weak opponents. The Illini's defense ranked dead last in scoring (36.7 PPG) and stopping the run (262.8 YPG) among Big Ten teams this week.
The Hawkeyes were dominated up front on both sides of the balloon Minneapolis. It surprised a lot of people, not the least of which were the guys who were manhandled.
Saturday's matchup in the trenches favors Iowa by quite a lot. It should look much more like itself in Champaign.
Prediction: IOWA 31, Illinois 17.