College Football Picks: Nebraska vs. Illinois 8/28/21
Nebraska Cornhuskers (0-0 SU, 0-0 ATS) vs. Illinois Fighting Illini (0-0 SU, 0-0 ATS)
When: Saturday, August 28, 1 p.m.
Where: Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.
Point Spread: NEB -7/ILL +7
Total: O/U 55.5
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Bret Bielema returns to the Big Ten after an uncomfortable five years in the SEC and three years in the NFL, and he opens with a significant opportunity against a team that Illinois has actually played pretty well in recent years. Nebraska is still waiting for the breakthrough in year four under Scott Frost, as the Cornhuskers have yet to achieve a .500 season under their former quarterback.
In fact, this was the game where Nebraska announced that it was a pretender a year ago, as the Illini rolled into Lincoln and pasted the Huskers by a 41-23 count, one of just two wins for Illinois a season ago. Frost might live on borrowed time as the man in charge in Lincoln if it happens again. Nebraska is currently on four seasons without a bowl game, the longest streak in Lincoln since Bob Devaney took the reins in 1962. But with Illinois coming off a win last year and a four-point loss when the teams last met in Champaign, this game might be a bit more of a challenge than the Huskers are expecting.
How the Public is Betting the Nebraska/Illinois Game
The public isn’t impressed with Nebraska, possibly remembering what happened a year ago. The Cornhuskers started as a 9.5-point favorite, but they’ve since slid to the current line of 7. The total has also dropped, falling from 56.5 to 55.5.
Tight end Thomas Fidone (knee) is out indefinitely, and linebacker Will Honas (knee) is out for the season. Running back Markese Stepp (foot) is probable.
Wide receiver Marquez Beason (hamstring), defensive lineman Jamal Woods (foot), and defensive lineman Roderick Perry II (undisclosed) are questionable. Guard Jordyn Slaughter (ankle) is out for the season.
When Nebraska Has the Ball
Two years ago, Nebraska did almost anything it wanted to against the Illinois defense, piling up 674 yards of offense and 42 points against the Illini. But the Huskers nearly blew the game by finishing minus-3 in the turnover battle, allowing Illinois to keep the game close in a 42-38 defeat. Turnovers were a real problem last season for the Huskers, as they finished minus-11 in turnovers a year ago, the sign of an undisciplined team.
There’s no excuse for that at this point in Frost’s tenure in Lincoln, as every player in the program has now been recruited by Frost and his staff. The fumbles have persisted in part because Nebraska is so reliant on whoever is playing quarterback, as the Huskers really don’t have much of a stable of running backs that they trust. Markese Stepp is the best runner on the roster, but he’s dealing with a foot injury and might not be able to handle much of a workload. Even if he is able to handle the load, Nebraska’s top runner last year was quarterback Adrian Martinez, with backup quarterback Luke McCaffrey checking in at No. 2. But McCaffrey is gone, so if Martinez doesn’t get his fumbling issues figured out, it’s difficult to see the Huskers getting their offense rolling.
When Illinois Has the Ball
If Brandon Peters has a game as he did against Nebraska last season, he’ll be a pretty happy man. Peters didn’t have much success last season, but the one game that went well for him came against the Huskers, who allowed Peters to throw 18-for-25 for 205 yards and a score in the rout. But Illinois’ previous coaching staff really didn’t trust any of their passers to do much with the ball, and considering that nobody completed at least half of their passes in 2020, it’s kind of understandable.
Instead, the Illini preferred to keep the ball on the ground, which had some decent results behind Chase Brown. Brown was a big key to success for the Illini last season, as both wins came when he carried the ball for at least 100 yards on the ground. Brown was never better than he was against the Huskers last season, as he took the ball 26 times against the Blackshirts for 110 yards and two of his three scores. More importantly, the Illini didn’t turn the ball over, finishing plus-5 for the game. Over the past two seasons, Illinois hasn’t had much go right, but the Illini have done well in discipline, finishing plus-16 in the turnover battle. The Illini return 18 starters from last season, so this team might not be that talented but shouldn’t beat itself.
Nebraska’s got a rather ugly history of failing to cover as a favorite, as the Huskers have managed to lose six of their past eight ATS when favored and have lost the game outright on four of their past six times as the favorite. But interestingly, both covers over that stretch of eight games came on the road, as the Huskers blasted Maryland 54-7 as a 6.5-point favorite in 2019 and bested Rutgers 28-21 as a 6.5-point favorite to close out the campaign in 2020.
Over the past three seasons, these teams have had no problems putting up points against each other, scoring at least 64 points in each meeting and getting 80 points in two of their past three matchups. But this one might be different because these teams both have 9+ starters returning on defense. Nebraska has seen the under cash in its past six road games, and the Huskers have only scored more than 28 points on the road once in their past five away from home. On the other hand, Illinois didn’t have much luck scoring no matter where it played, as the Illini failed to score more than 24 points in seven of eight games last season.
It should be a fine day for football in eastern Illinois, with temperatures reaching 80 degrees and wind blowing at eight miles per hour and heading north.
Dan’s Pick to Cover the Spread
Once again, Nebraska comes in with expectations, but the Huskers don’t seem to have a team that’s capable of meeting them. In recent years, Nebraska hasn’t shown much in the way of discipline, while that’s been Illinois’ biggest strength. The Illini should be an improved team from last year, and last year, they were good enough to smash the Huskers in Lincoln for their first win there since 1924.
I’m not going as far as predicting that Illinois is going to beat Nebraska, but I think this line is too high. I’m taking the Illini.
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