It’ll be David vs. Goliath regardless. But if the B1G West wants a puncher’s chance in the league title game Dec. 3 in Indianapolis, its best hope lies with the team located in Champaign-Urbana.

Granted, there are still 4 weeks of play to decide the division winners. But entering November, it’s clear which team from the West has emerged from the pack.

No. 14 Illinois is not only one of the league’s biggest surprises, but one of the nation’s. Sitting at 7-1 overall and 4-1 in the conference, Illinois continues to impress by the week. The Illini currently hold a 1-game lead over 2nd-place Purdue.

A workmanlike 26-9 win over Nebraska Saturday was a microcosm of head coach Bret Bielema’s philosophy. Run the football and play sound defense. Don’t turn it over. It’s a recipe, if executed to perfection, that gives Illinois a chance to pull an upset whether it be Ohio State or Michigan on the other sideline in Indy.

Leading with defense

The Illini defense is opening eyes across the nation. After another impressive performance, Ryan Walters’ unit has the following national ranks:

  • No. 1 scoring defense
  • No. 1 interceptions
  • No. 1 pass efficiency defense
  • No. 2 rushing defense
  • No. 2 passing defense
  • No. 14 sacks

Sydney Brown snagged 2 INTs Saturday. Jartavius Martin added another. Devon Witherspoon has 11 PBUs and has a season grade of 89.9 according to PFF that is 1st among Power 5 CBs.

It will take a stout defense to tangle with the likes of OSU or Michigan. The Illini can boast of that. They have guys, not just in the secondary but at all 3 levels, getting the job done. They’re surrendering only 77 yards a game to opponents on the ground.

The unit will be tested in back-to-back games Nov. 12 and Nov. 19 against Purdue and Michigan. A trial run of sorts. If they pass those tests, a final exam in Indy awaits.

It wouldn’t be wise to bet against this defensive unit. Even facing the likes of CJ Stroud or JJ McCarthy. They’re built for the long haul. And they’re doing it in many phases and categories.

They’ve held 6 straight opponents to 14 points or fewer, their longest streak since 1989. The biggest tests remain, but if the West is looking for a title game contender, it should look no further than Walters’ defensive unit.

Star running back power

Not only do the Illini have a star-studded defense, they claim the nation’s leading rusher, and a Heisman candidate, in Chase Brown. Running for over 100 yards in each of Illinois’ 8 games, Brown is carrying the bulk of the offensive load.

He’s at 1,248 yards and still has the month of November (and maybe December) to go. Here’s a look at a few of his impressive numbers and where he ranks nationally:

  • 36 rushes of 10+ yards (1st)
  • 707 rush yards after contact (1st)
  • 60 missed tackles forced (2nd)

If anyone from the West is going to be able to stand toe-for-toe with OSU or Michigan, it’ll need a running game. Brown gives Illinois a proven star and a versatile back who can get yards on the edge or the tough yards between the tackles. He’ll need to be at his best over the final month.

Cool customer at QB in DeVito

Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito has been a terrific fit in Barry Lunney Jr.’s offense. He’s thrown for 12 TDs and just 2 interceptions. DeVito’s a smart cat. He hasn’t forced plays that aren’t there and is playing sound, fundamental football. He understands his team’s strengths (running the ball and defense) and isn’t trying to be someone he’s not.

DeVito connected on 20-of-22 passes against Nebraska. Pinpoint accuracy. On the year, he’s completing 72.48% of his throws, while averaging 199 yards per game. Lunney refers to him as “tough and confident.” He’s delivering the goods each week, even if there’s little flair or pizzazz mixed in.

His first-quarter TD throw to Isaiah Williams wasn’t difficult. A simple crossing route with great design by Lunney. Williams took it to the house and the Illini were off and running. That’s the beauty of it. DeVito. doesn’t have to be Aaron Rodgers in the pocket. He’s protected by his running game. He can use play action and short routes to his advantage. A solid recipe to follow, especially as the weather turns cold in November.

The X-factor in Bret Bielema

Of all the contenders in the West, only one team has a coach that’s won a conference championship game. Bielema won back-to-back games in Indy in 2011-12 as coach of Wisconsin. He’s coached in the Rose Bowl; he’s not afraid of the big stage. He’ll have his team ready to compete Dec. 3.

You’d have to be completely disengaged not to see the transformation taking place in Champaign under Bielema. Recruiting has picked up. A solid foundation is built. He knows the B1G inside and out and is putting together a roster built to win now. Whether it’s enough to compete with the big, bad bullies of the East remains to be seen.

Teams from the East have won 8 straight in the B1G title game. It’s been lopsided at times. Once UCLA and USC enter the mix, divisions could shift.

It’s now or never for the West representative. Here’s hoping Bielema and the new-look Illini can crash the party and make things interesting.