Embattled Nebraska head coach Scott Frost leads his Cornhuskers on the road to Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois to take on the Fighting Illini in a Week 0 Big Ten Conference matchup. The first game to kick off in the 2021 college football season finds these teams opening with a conference opponent for the second straight year. That had not happened for Illinois since 1995 and 1996, while Nebraska had not done so since 1981 and 1982 when they were not yet part of the Big Ten Conference.

Let’s take a look at this matchup with a Nebraska vs. Illinois pick and prediction while also taking a look at the odds and betting trends.

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Nebraska vs. Illinois Pick

Nebraska finished the shortened, conference-only 2020 season at 3-5, while Illinois ended the campaign at just 2-6. The Illini’s fifth straight losing season under former head coach Lovie Smith and ninth straight sub .500 effort overall prompted a coaching change with a game left in the 2020 season. Now, former Wisconsin and Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema has taken charge of the Illinois program and will take the field for his first game in this Saturday afternoon affair.

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Betting Odds

Oddsmakers opened this line near double digits in favor of Nebraska, but bettors have since seen ample money on Illinois drive the line down under a touchdown at certain books. The total has remained within a point of its opening 55 in many locations.

Here is a quick look at the Nebraska vs. Illinois odds, courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook:

Team Spread Moneyline Total
Nebraska -7 (-110) -255 O 55
Illinois +7 (-110) +205 U 55

Bielema had been very successful at Wisconsin, leading the Badgers to three Rose Bowls. He also led the Razorbacks to three bowl games in five seasons.

He inherits a decent roster and this team should do some good things by season’s end, but we believe it is going to take some time for it to be truly relevant. Asking this squad to compete with a veteran Nebraska team that has something to prove this season may be a bit much so early on.

Bielema will be looking to develop his own identity for this program, something that takes time, and he will be trying to do so with a team that is just 3-7 ATS in its last 10 games overall, including 1-4 ATS at home.

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Nebraska, meanwhile, returns seven offensive and 10 defensive starters from last year’s team, including the real edge and wildcard in this matchup, QB Adrian Martinez.

After the offense produced its least points per game (23.1) of any Cornhusker group since the turn of the century, Martinez and Frost will have a lot to prove this season.

Martinez is a dynamic runner, which should neutralize an Illinois defensive front all returning from last season. Nebraska also has the offensive weaponry to make Martinez a multi-dimensional threat, adding some transfer strength at the skill positions with RB Markese Stepp (USC) and WR Samori Toure (Montana).

The Huskers should have ample motivation in this season opener. They will be looking to avenge a loss at home to the Illini last season as 16 point favorites. That was Nebraska’s first home loss to Illinois since 1924, which was nearly a century ago. Nebraska turned it over five times in that contest, part of an unfortunate theme for the team last season. Their -10 turnover margin on year masked what was actually an impressive +5 yards per game average in 2020, creating added value in what we believe is an underrated team coming in.

That loss was also the first for Nebraska in the last five meetings in this head-to-head series. In 2019, the Cornhuskers won, 42-38, at Memorial Stadium as 13-point favorites. That victory also creates a bit of value for us today, given that the game looked much closer than it truly was. Nebraska outgained Illinois 674-299 in total yards and had 32 first downs to the Illini’s 14, but only won by four points, due in large part to a -3 turnover differential.

Nebraska vs. Illinois Betting Trends

Betting Trends
Bielema's teams are just 8-13 ATS over their last 21 games at home.
Frost's teams are 23-19 ATS against conference opponents.
Nebraska is 5-3 ATS as a road favorite over the last five seasons.

Besides trying to slow down Martinez, Illinois will have to contend with some ugly trends. The Illini are just 9-14 ATS as home underdogs across the last six seasons and have covered just one of their last six August games.

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Correcting those failings might be difficult given they hired a head coach in Bielema who is just 8-13 ATS at home in his last 21 tries. It’s not difficult then to see the Illini, who are just 18-66 SU and 34-50 ATS in the last 10 seasons, falling to cover here in such early stages of a new regime.

While many would consider Frost’s tenure at Nebraska thus far a major failure, having come from a perfect season at UCF in 2016, he has quietly produced a serviceable 23-19 ATS record against conference opponents in his five seasons as a head coach.

Nebraska is also a respectable 5-3 ATS as road favorites in the last five seasons. The team covered its only spread in that role in 2020 with a 28-21 road win over Rutgers in Piscataway as six-point favorites.

Nebraska vs. Illinois Betting Prediction

Frost is under the microscope by the NCAA and his university. The latter’s leash surely won’t extend beyond this season without at least a bowl bid. He knows the first half of his schedule will be where his best chances to win occur and should have his guys ready to go here.

Expect the fundamentals worked on ahead of the first game of the season to help Martinez and his teammates protect the ball better in this one and exploit the talent gap over Illinois, holding on for a double-digit victory.

Our Pick: Nebraska -6.5 

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