The Big Ten kicks its season off Friday night with Wisconsin and Illinois. The Badgers enter the season ranked No. 14 in the AP Poll after finishing 9-4 last year, two of their losses to Ohio State and another to Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
Of course, their fourth loss was against Illinois in one of the weirder results of the year. Wisconsin opened as high as -24 at betonline however early money has pushed the line down to Wisconsin -19 with a total of 51 at BetAnySports.
Illinois Pulled Upset in 2019
No one projected Wisconsin to lose in this matchup last season. The Badgers were undefeated with an impressive win over Michigan and were -30 point favorites, even on the road. The Illini didn’t care about that as they stayed close the entire way and then scored the final 10 points in a 24-23 win.
Wisconsin finished with 100 more yards than Illinois, but its offense never fully figured things out, averaging 3.6 yards per carry as a team. Quarterback Jack Coan was fine, tossing for 264 yards on 8.3 yards per attempt, but it wasn’t enough.
The Illinois offense is again the question in this matchup because it never found consistency last season, scoring 26.7 points per game. In last year’s win, quarterback Brandon Peters completed just nine of 21 passes, while the ground game did most of the work, averaging 4.0 yards per carry and matching what Wisconsin did.
Peters is back, but unless he improved vastly in the offseason, he’s not a complete game changer after completing just 55.3% of his passes last season. Top receivers Josh Imatorbhebhe and Donny Navarro are back, but the Illini will likely focus on running the ball between Mike Epstein and Chase Brown.
Illinois Could Keep It Close
Not many will give Illinois a chance in this game, similar to last year, but it has a decent amount of returning talent to put up a fight. Its offensive line is mostly intact and that could lead to a repeat of last season’s success.
Wisconsin is ranked, but like any Big Ten team, there are a lot of unknowns this season. That includes at quarterback because Coan is out with a foot injury. In his place, sophomore Graham Mertz has been practicing with the first team the last couple weeks after attempting just 10 passes last season.
While he’s inexperienced, this is still a Badgers team that’s going to focus on the ground game. Despite having new running backs and a somewhat new offensive line, they’re going to stick with what’s always worked.
Garrett Groshek and Nakia Watson are expected to split touches, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the younger Watson eventually took over the job. As for Mertz, he’ll have top wideout Kendric Pryor and tight end Jake Ferguson to work with.
The main reason Illinois won this game last year was because its defense held strong. Unfortunately, they have to replace most of the front seven, which could be trouble against this Wisconsin front. On the plus side, the Illini return almost everyone in the secondary, meaning Mertz isn’t going to have an easy game.
Wisconsin is home and ranked, but these teams may be closer than it appears on the surface. Illinois has its quarterback from last season and the confidence that it can win this matchup again. The Badgers may have more questions entering the season and that starts with Mertz at quarterback behind a mostly new offensive line.