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2021 football opponent preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

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Bert is back in the B1G, let’s dive into what to expect from his new team in 2021.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 19 Orange and Blue Spring Game Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It is August now, which means that it is time to seriously turn our attention to college football. The Wisconsin Badgers opened up fall practice last Friday and the rest of the country will be joining them shortly. For the rest of the month, we will be posting two articles about each opponent on Wisconsin’s schedule.

The first post will be written by one of our staffers and will give you a basic overview of each team the Badgers are playing. The second post will be written by a variety of fans and writers of each team, giving us a more in-depth look at the team from those who follow it closely. We’ve got other SB Nation site contributors, newsletter writers, podcast hosts, and other Twitter sports shouters on deck. It should be a lot of fun.

Up next in our preview series we take a look at Illinois.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 19 Orange and Blue Spring Game Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Team name: Illinois Fighting Illini
2020 record: 2-6, No. 7 Big Ten West
Date/location of 2021 game: Saturday, October 9, Champaign, Ill.
Last time vs. Wisconsin: 2020, Wisconsin 45 - Illinois 7, Camp Randall Stadium

Returning leaders:

Passing: Brandon Peters (SR), 39-of-80 (48.75%), 429 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions, 136 rushing yards, one touchdown in five games played
Rushing: Chase Brown (SO), 104 carries, 540 yards (5.2 ypc), three touchdowns in eight games
Receiving: Daniel Barker (JR), 19 receptions, 268 yards (14.11 average) in eight games
Tackles: Jake Hansen (SR), 68 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks
Sacks: Owen Carney (SR), five sacks
Interceptions: Devon Witherspoon (SO) and Jake Hansen (SR), two interceptions

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 19 Orange and Blue Spring Game Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Key offensive player:

Sophomore running back Chase Brown (pictured above) will again be the feature back for Illinois this season after a strong year in the backfield in 2020. I expect that Brown will be the focal point of the offense under new offensive coordinator Tony Petersen. Brown has the third-highest returning production of any back in the Big Ten in 2021, and I do not think it is out of the question for him to surpass 1,000 yards if he can stay healthy.

Key defensive player:

Jake Hansen is back for what feels like his tenth year at Illinois and enters the season receiving All-Conference recognition. Hansen is always around the ball and tends to create big plays from his linebacker spot. He has accumulated over 240 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, seven sacks, and three interceptions for his career. His ability to force and recover fumbles set him apart, however. Hansen has forced 10 fumbles and recovered six in 41 career games.

2021 season preview:

Illinois made the switch to Bret Bielema this off-season after Lovie Smith failed to produce in his fifth year in Champaign.

Bielema has insisted that he will not simply try to replicate what he did at Wisconsin at his newest stop, but given the personnel he inherits on offense, I think the Illini will be a run-first team in 2021. The new offensive coordinator has a track record for running the ball (he was previously at Appalachian State), and Chase Brown is one of the more talented running backs in the conference.

Quarterback play was incredibly inconsistent last year with three different signal-callers contributing more than 300 yards passing because of COVID-19 issues. Brandon Peters (pictured below) is projected to retain his starting role this season, while blue-chip recruit Isaiah Williams shifts back to wide receiver. Rutgers transfer Art Sitkowski will also be vying for a spot in the quarterback room.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 12 Illinois at Northwestern Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Up front, Illinois has a solid offensive line with four starters back. Add in two talented tight ends in Daniel Barker and Luke Ford, and Illinois has some players to build around this season. With Josh Imatorbhebh gone, there are lingering questions at wide receiver. Former Miami transfer Brian Hightower made some nice plays last year, but overall the group has more questions than answers at first glance.

On the defensive side of the ball, Illinois was bad last season. Jake Hansen is a very talented linebacker, and Owen Carney Jr. (pictured below) can do some nice things off the edge, but as a unit, the Fighting Illini defense will need to be much better in 2021.

A defensive-minded coach, Bret Bielema, and his defensive coordinator will have their work cut out for them as they look to shift schemes. A lot of young players saw time last season, so there is hope for the defense, but the defense will need to build around Hansen, Carney, and Tony Adams this fall.

Illinois v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Illinois, like many teams across the country, returns a lot of production from a year ago. As much as it pains me to say, I also really liked how Beliema hired in terms of assistants. I think a lower-tier bowl game is the ceiling for Illinois when you look at their schedule that includes crossover games against Maryland and Rutgers, and non-conference games against Charlotte and UTSA. I do not think that the Badgers will sleepwalk into Champaign as they did in 2019 however, leading me to think that Wisconsin should have the upper hand when the two meet in early October.