CHAMPAIGN — The long-delayed Big Ten football season kicks off tonight in Madison, Wisconsin.
The 14th-ranked Badgers take on Lovie Smith’s fifth Illini squad, which enters the contest as a three-touchdown underdog.
Brian Moline previews the Illini football opener at Wisconsin with Robert Rosenthal from IlliniBoard.com.
Coach Smith said he wasn’t offended by the oddsmakers’ lack of faith.
“As far as being disrespected, until we become a consistent winner, this is the position we’ll be in quite a few times,” Smith said. “It’s not all bad to be the underdog.”
The Badgers are without injured starting quarterback Jack Coen. That means redshirt freshman Graham Mertz will be under center. Mertz was a top five quarterback prospect in the class of 2019, but has no college experience.
That fact might aid the Illini strategy — to create turnovers.
It worked in last year’s game, when Illinois was a 31-point underdog, but eked out a last-second win after converting two Badger turnovers into ten points in the game’s final minutes.
Senior linebacker Jake Hansen explained the science.
“I think there’s a statistic, if you’re plus three in the turnover margin, your chances of winning are like 95-percent, or something crazy like that,” Hansen said. “So, we’re looking for three, at least, and then as many as you can get, right?”
The Illini will wear white helmets with a black Block I to remind viewers of “our student-athletes continued advocacy for social change.”
Likewise, the Badgers will wear a black, block script “W” which the Wisconsin athletic department describes as “showing their solidarity with Black and other underrepresented communities.”
If both teams pass conference mandated COVID testing protocols, the game will kick-off at 7pm on the Big Ten Network.
The Big Ten announced yesterday that “in the instance a game cannot be played as scheduled due to both a Test Positivity Rate greater than 5% and a Population Positivity Rate greater than 7.5% for one or both teams, the game shall be cancelled and declared a No Contest and will not count as a win or loss for either team.”
During his regular Monday press conference, Coach Smith implied that his entire team and staff had tested COVID-free, but a team spokesman declined to answer whether that remained true through the week.
Rob McColley covers University of Illinois sports for WILL.