CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Starting the season successfully will be paramount for Illinois and the nonconference schedule sets up favorably toward that goal as Lovie Smith enters a critical fourth year as Fighting Illini coach, starting with the home opener against Akron on Saturday. Illinois plays at Connecticut the following week before returning home to host Eastern Michigan, giving the Illini a realistic shot at a 3-0 start.
TV: Noon ET, Big Ten Network. LINE: Illinois -17
Illinois has faced Akron once, winning 38-7 in 1996 in Champaign, but the Zips showed last year that they can play with Big Ten opponents when they knocked off eventual West Division champion Northwestern in Evanston. The Illini lost their final game in 2018 to Northwestern to finish the season with six losses in their last seven games. Defense proved to be a significant handicap for Illinois a year ago, when they gave up 49, 63, 54 and 63 points in four of their final seven games to finish last in the Big Ten at 39.4 allowed per game (fifth-worst nationally). The Illini return a core group of young starters, but they were partly responsible for the Illini winding up third-worst nationally with a Big-Ten most 508.3 yards allowed.
ABOUT ILLINOIS (2018: 4-8)
The biggest preseason question at the most important position was answered last week when Smith named Brandon Peters, a graduate transfer from Michigan with two years of eligibility remaining, as the starting quarterback for the opener. Peters graduated in three years from Michigan after playing in eight games (four starts) and throwing for 680 career yards and four touchdowns. Running back Reggie Corbin returns after rushing for 1,085 yards and nine touchdowns last year, and four of the Illini's offensive line starters are back.
ABOUT AKRON (2018: 4-8)
The Zips lost their final five games last season and coach Terry Bowden lost his job after seven years, replaced by Tom Arth of Tennessee-Chattanooga. How great thou Arth will be ultimately depends on his success as a Zip recruiter down the road but there are some returning veterans who should make the offense productive, led by quarterback Kato Nelson (2,329 yards, 15 touchdowns, 52 percent completion rate in 11 starts last year). Wide receivers Andre Williams (46 receptions, 649 yards six TDs), Jonah Morris (26, 381, one) and Nate Stewart (22, 280, one) return to give Arth some options in the passing attack, but Akron needs to step up its running game after it wound up fourth-worst nationally in total offense a year ago.
1. Illinois finished with a losing record in 14 of the past 17 seasons and hasn't appeared in a bowl game since 2011.
2. Smith has won nine games in three seasons with the Illini and among those victories were two over FCS teams, two against the Mid-American Conference and one versus Conference USA.
3. Illinois was picked to finish last in the West Division in the Big Ten preseason poll while the Zips were voted fifth in the six-team MAC East Division.
PREDICTION: Illinois 31, Akron 21