In recent history, the Indiana-Illinois game has become a battle for tenth place. Illinois always has been a tough program to figure. Illinois is the only major public university in a state with a population of nearly 13,000,000 (more populous than Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and every other Big Ten state), but except for the odd BCS bowl here and there has been almost uniformly bad for the last 15 years. Ron Zook, after underachieving at Florida as Steve Spurrier's successor, stormed onto the scene and recruited very well, and in his third season the Illini advanced to the Rose Bowl when Big Ten champ Ohio State (which lost to Illinois) played in the BCS title game. Since then, the Illini have been in steady decline. IU's comfortable 27-14 win over Illinois last season was the Hoosiers' only win of the Big Ten season. IU has struggled at Illinois's Memorial Stadium, which is the venue for this year's game. The memorable win in 2006, the game in which IU mounted a huge comeback and won on Austin Starr's field goal at the final gun, is IU's only win in Champaign since 1979.
IU and Illinois have played each other in every season since 1995. This always has been one of the strangest "protected rivalries" in the Big Ten. In the late 1990s, the conference decided to take a more uniform approach to protecting games, requiring that each team have exactly two such games. IU doesn't really have a natural rival in the conference other than Purdue (IU and Michigan State play for the Old Brass Spittoon, perhaps the strangest and least treasured trophy in college football), so it was obvious that such an arrangement would lead to a non-rivalry being protected. Still, Illinois and Purdue had a long-standing history. The two teams play for the Purdue Cannon and played every year from 1952 through 1994. It's never been clear to me why IU and Illinois were paired, as opposed to IU and Northwestern, when Illinois and Purdue had a long-standing rivalry and are geographically closer than any Big Ten campuses other than Michigan and Michigan State. The mystery becomes academic after this year, of course, when the addition of Nebraska leads to the creation of divisions. But protecting Purdue-Illinois and IU-Northwestern would have resulted in only one manufactured rivalry, while protecting IU-Illinois and Purdue-Northwestern create two manufactured rivalries. Any Boiler or Illini readers have any insight on this?
The enigmatic Juice Williams, a supposed dual threat quarterback who generally struggled to pass with any consistency, is gone, and his longtime backup Eddie McGee is now a wide receiver. Redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase apparently will be the Illinois quarterback, but McGee, per this Rittenberg post, may return to QB if injuries require it. Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford posted impressive numbers: each ran for more than 500 yards and averaged more than 6 yards per carry, and both are back. The running attack, which was good enough for #17 in the country las season, may be the best bet for Illinois, because the receivers are nearly as inexperienced as the quarterback. Illinois's leading returning receiver is Jarred Fayson, who gained 218 yards.
Ron Zook's background is as a defensive coach, but the Illini defense was very bad last year. While their numbers are somewhat skewed by two season-ending, high-scoring losses to Fresno State and Cincinnati, the Illini were near the bottom of FBS in nearly every category.
This is a game that each fan base targets as a must-win every year. This year will be no different. Each season, the loser of this game ends up near the bottom of the conference. Both teams surely have some optimism, but history may win out.