When I first saw that Vegas likes the Nebraska Cornhuskers to win by a touchdown and a field goal over Illinois I was surprised. The line seems high given that these two teams had a very similar preconference.
Both the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the Illinois Fighting Illini are 3-1, having beaten up on nobodies and gotten thoroughly out-played in their one loss to a ranked and formidable Pac-12 team. Both teams are obviously much stronger on the offensive side of the ball too.
So why is the line where it is? Because of the letter on the helmet, and the brand association that goes with it. These two teams aren’t that far apart in strength; but the programs are far apart in tradition.
SPREAD: Nebraska Cornhuskers -10
TV: ESPNU, 11 AM Tom Hart & John Congemi
Nebraska Cornhuskers preview:
As much as I’ve ripped the throwing mechanics of Taylor Martinez over the years, I still think he could give Braxton Miller a run for his money as the best QB in the Big Ten. And Kain Colter would be a notch or two below. I don’t think Martinez is the best passer, just a good playmaker, who gets too much grief and not enough credit.
But none of that matters this week, because he’s not playing. We’re not sure who is starting for NU yet.
Illinois trails the all-time series with Nebraska by a 2-7-1 margin, and the Huskers hold a 5-1 lead in games played in Lincoln. The teams have faced each other only twice in the last 60 years. Illinois’ two victories against Nebraska came in 1923 and 1924.
Nebraska enters this game dead last in the Big Ten in total defense and penultimate in pass defense. And this is trouble because Illini Quarterback Nate Scheelhaase is having a Silver Football Award kind of season. He’s first in the Big Ten in passing yards, passing efficiency and total offense. He had more TD passes in the first half Saturday (5) than during the entire season (4) in 2012.
The Huskers are bad against the run too, ranking 10th in the league in rush defense. Bo Pelini is supposed to be a defensive guru. This is supposed to be a traditionally feared defense, and they have what might be a bottom three unit in what is a very weak Big Ten. No wonder Pelini could find himself on a seat hotter than Illini Coach Tim Beckman was sitting entering the year.
Illinois Fighting Illini preview:
The revamped Illinois offense, directed by new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, has jumped at least 80 spots in the national rankings from last year to this year in long scrimmage plays, scoring offense, passing efficiency, passing offense, total offense and turnovers lost, with the biggest turnaround a whopping 103-place swing in long plays from scrimmage.
Illinois scored a school-record 161 points over its first four games, eclipsing the previous record of 158 points in the first four games of 1914, when the Illini won Big Ten and national titles. The UI record for most points in the first five games of a season is 193 set by the 1903 team.
Watching Cubit and Beckman working together this season reminds me of Elders Cunningham and Price in the Book of Mormon. If you’ve seen the musical, you’ll notice some similarities in personality traits between the two fictional Mormon missionairies and the two coaches.
Illini running back Josh Ferguson this season has reminded of those old “we secretly switched Folgers Crystals with the leading brand….let’s see if anyone notices” commercials. Except it would be subbing Josh Ferguson for Marshall Faulk.
Ferguson is currently leading the Big Ten at 21.8 yards per catch. That’s an astounding number for a running back! And it’s quite rare for a tailback to be leading the conference in yards per reception. Almost always, it’s a big play receiver who dominates that statistic. He’s also leading the nation in receiving yards by a running back.
Brutally Honest Prediction: Nebraska Cornhuskers 47, Illini 40
Brutally Honest Record: 59-22
I think the Illini have improved a lot, and they’re getting there. You’ll notice I’m not doing the Tim Beckman hot seat meter anymore. However, I don’t think they’re there yet. Beating an unranked Nebraska Cornhuskers on the road isn’t exactly “arriving,” but given that the illini haven’t left the state, how can we trust them to beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers?
NU wins it narrowly in a shootout. Kenny Bell makes some big plays against a young and inexperienced Illini secondary.
Listen to my Northwestern and Illini reports every Tue at 10:30 AM on KOZN 1620 The Zone
Paul M. Banks is the owner of The Sports Bank.net, an affiliate of Fox Sports. An analyst for 95.7 The Fan and 1620 The Zone, he also writes for Chicago Now. Follow him on Twitter (@paulmbanks) and Facebook, subscribe to his RSS feedPowered by Sidelines Follow paulmbanks