Since the Big 10 split up into two new divisions — the East and the West — it looked as though those teams in the West would be seeing a little of a break because, as luck would have it, the eastern side of the conference is stronger than the western side.
That’s not the full truth, though. As the Illinois Fighting Illini look to turn the page on another mediocre football season, the focus must be shifted to a demanding, daunting road schedule that slots them against Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern.
That game against Ohio State is one of the two mandatory crossover games Illinois will be playing against an opponent from the East. The other game comes against Penn State — so two of the best teams in the conference — but that one is home for the Illini, so we’ll leave it out of this discussion. In 2013, on its way to 1-7 record in the Big 10, Illinois lost three of four road games, its only win coming against a Purdue team that posted a lone victory.
Looking at this season’s road schedule compared to the last, it’s not incredibly hopeful. In fact, the schedule itself is probably a downgrade from a season ago. It kicks of Sept. 27 at Nebraska, a game that will be shown in primetime on the Big Ten Network. The Illini travel to Wisconsin two weeks later, followed by Ohio State another two weeks after that. The regular season finale is then on the road against Northwestern.
There are two main keys when it comes to winning games on the road, especially the games that the Illini don’t necessarily have any business winning: get off the field on third down and protect the football.
Part of the reason Illinois severely struggled on the road (and in general) was a defense that allowed 35.4 points per game, which ranked 106th in the FBS. Defensive coordinator Tim Banks was in his second season with the Illini, and will likely only be seeing one more opportunity to prove himself this 2014 season.
Illinois turned the ball over nine times in four road games a season ago. Those numbers didn’t fly then, and they certainly won’t fly moving forward, especially when the Illini have a defense that struggles. It’s so vitally important to take care of the football and utilize possession.
It’s tough to see Illinois splitting its four conference road games this season because of all the question marks and simply how good those opponents will be especially at home. It could be another very rough season for Tim Beckman‘s Illini.