Editor’s note: Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series continues today with Illinois. We’ll work through every B1G West team this week, after covering every East team last week.

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There’s a case to be made for Illinois as the most intriguing Big Ten team in 2023.

Allow Bret Bielema to explain.

“We could win all 12 games on our schedule, and we could lose all 12 games on our schedule,” Bielema said at Big Ten Media Days. “That’s the first time that’s been the case since I’ve been here.”

He’s right. Every other team in the B1G has 1 or more games on its schedule that could more or less be classified as either a guaranteed win or guaranteed loss.

Youngstown State at Ohio State? UNLV at Michigan? Outcome predetermined. And so on down the line.

The Illinois schedule provides no free passes. Toledo is predicted to win the Mid-American Conference. Kansas is suddenly a compelling team with a serious chance at finishing in the Top 25. Florida Atlantic is an athletic opponent that has a new coach in Tom Herman who has succeeded at the Group of 5 level.

But the Illini also have no automatic Ls. Illinois avoids Michigan and Ohio State and gets a talented but youthful Penn State team at home in September.

If things break a certain way, Illinois will have its most magical season since Juice Williams led the Fighting Illini to the Rose Bowl in 2007. If you squint hard enough, you can even see a path to Illinois’ first Big Ten title since Kurt Kittner led the way in 2001.

On top of the variance on Illinois’ schedule, the team itself is an interesting mix of known and unknown quantities.

Led by Jer’Zhan “Johnny” Newton and Keith Randolph Jr., the Illini have one of the top defensive lines in the country. A veteran offensive line will also help Illinois play the game The Bielema Way.

But Illinois is also replacing its starting quarterback as well as all-B1G running back Chase Brown, all-B1G safety Sydney Brown and all-America cornerback Devon Witherspoon.

Anything feels possible for the 2023 Illini.

Running it back with which running back?

Chase Brown’s workload felt like something out of the 1970s. He finished second nationally with 328 carries, trailing only Air Force’s Brad Roberts. No Big Ten running back has toted the rock that many times in a season since Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon had 343 carries in 2014.

In other words, 1 man is not capable of filling that void. Brown was a freak of nature. The Illini backfield will be a true committee this year. But chances are Josh McCray will be the alpha dog of that pack.

Brown’s workload likely would have been considerably lower if McCray were healthy last season. As a freshman in 2021, McCray had 112 carries for 549 yards. That’s only 58 carries fewer than Brown’s ’21 output.

But McCray was injured in the season opener against Wyoming and never got back to 100% until the bowl game against Mississippi State. He finished the year with 19 carries.

Reggie Love, who stepped up in McCray’s absence, is also a key part of the rotation. Love had 70 carries for 317 yards backing up Brown. A pair of redshirt freshmen, Jordan Anderson and Aidan Laughery, will also have their chances to contribute.

Bielema thinks the room has the same vibe as his 2010 Wisconsin trio of James White (1,052 yards), John Clay (1,012 yard) and Montee Ball (996 yards). That confidence is no doubt underscored by an offensive line that returns left tackle Julian Pearl, left guard Isaiah Adams and right guard Zy Crisler.

No matter who carries the ball, Illinois should be a capable team on the ground.

The education of Aaron Henry

Illinois’ most significant offseason loss was not a player, but defensive coordinator Ryan Walters. Walters had the Illini ranked in the top 10 of every major defensive stat, including No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense. And because of that, he’s now the head coach at Purdue.

Aaron Henry, formerly the defensive backs coach, was promoted to take his place. Henry’s ability to fill Walters’ headset will go a long way in keeping Illinois near the top of the B1G defensively.

It helps that he’s got some good tools in his belt.

Newton and Randolph tied for 2nd in the B1G with 13 tackles for loss last year. Sophomore outside linebacker Gabe Jacas, who recorded 4 sacks as a freshman, is a top candidate to be a breakout player this season.

It’s the secondary that will make or break Illinois’ defensive fortunes, so it’s probably a good thing that’s Henry’s coaching specialty. Cornerback Tahveon Nicholson leads a largely inexperienced group. Transfer safeties Demetrius Hill (FIU) and Nicario Harper (Louisville) will need to step up to keep the Illini performing near last year’s level.

Eastbound on I-74?

Lucas Oil Stadium is a straight shot along Interstate 74 from Champaign, 10 miles closer to campus than Chicago’s Soldier Field. But the Illini have never made that short trip on the first weekend of December, and the time to do so may be running short with the Big Ten West ceasing to exist after this season.

It may be quite some time before Illinois has a better opportunity to play in a Big Ten championship game.

Really, that time should have been last year. Illinois just needed to beat Michigan State or Purdue at home to clinch the division, and lost to both. That necessitated an upset at Michigan to get there, and the Illini very nearly got it — until some questionable late officiating decisions and Jake Moody’s game-winning field goal.

The Illini are determined to finish where they stumbled last November. And the key to doing so may rest on the arm of quarterback Luke Altmyer.

Altmyer, a 2-year backup at Ole Miss, will get his first opportunity to start at Illinois. Just in case, the Illini made a savvy addition with Ball State starter John Paddock, who is now a fourth-generation Illinois football player.

The Illini have their best receiving corps since at least 2015, when future pros Geronimo Allison and Malik Turner were among the team’s few highlights. Isaiah Williams can do a little bit of everything, including making plays out of the backfield. Pat Bryant is a legitimate downfield threat. Casey Washington can take a whack from a safety.

If Altmyer can get the ball to them, Illinois will have an offense dynamic enough to potentially shock the West.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: Toledo (L)

With the exception of 2020, when there were no non-conference game, a MAC team has defeated a Big Ten opponent every year since 2006. And this Toledo team could turn out to be the MAC’s best since Northern Illinois made the Orange Bowl.

The Rockets open the season with a shocker. But it will say more about them than it does the Illini.

Week 2: at Kansas (W)

The Illini will be the underdog after the Week 1 defeat, but this defense will be the rare unit capable of stifling Lance Leipold’s explosive Jayhawks offense.

Week 3: Penn State (L)

A potential swing game in the Big Ten title race, though it’s unlikely many people think of it that way. But with a win, Illinois gets a huge boost in the West race since it avoids Michigan and Ohio State. And a loss would devastate the Nittany Lions, who must deal with both of those teams in the East.

This one won’t go to 9 overtimes. But Penn State will be taken to the limit before heading home with a win.

Week 4: Florida Atlantic (W)

Willie Taggart has coached at 5 programs, and only 1 of them had a worse record the year after he left. So, expect the Owls to be better under Tom Herman than last year’s 5-7 team that lost to Purdue by only 2 points. But also expect the Illini to win.

Week 5: at Purdue (L)

The Boilermakers won’t be particularly good this season, but Ryan Walters knows Illinois’ strengths and weaknesses like the back of his hand. I’ll give him the edge in his first showdown with Bielema.

Week 6: Nebraska (W)

The Huskers are likely still weak in the trenches, and that’s a recipe for an Illini mauling.

Week 7: at Maryland (W)

The law firm of Newton and Randolph runs roughshod over the Terps, and Henry’s new-look defensive backfield comes of age as Illinois scores an upset over Taulia Tagovailoa and Maryland.

Week 8: Wisconsin (W)

Luke Fickell will have the Badgers off to an unbeaten start … until facing the Illini. Whether or not he admits it, last year proved this is a game Bielema will always circle on his calendar. It was Illinois’ most dominating performance of the season. Expect the Illini to out-tough the Badgers again.

Week 9: Bye

Week 10: at Minnesota (W)

Dating to his time at Wisconsin, Bielema has never lost to the Gophers. Why start now?

Week 11: Indiana (W)

Last year’s loss at Indiana was a Week 2 fluke. And it cost Illinois dearly in the long run. Revenge will be served cold in this blowout November win.

Week 12: at Iowa (L)

With a win, the Illini will punch their ticket to the Big Ten championship game. Alas, the Hawkeyes have other plans. Iowa would have won last year’s slugfest with any semblance of an offense, and this year it will have that.

Week 13: Northwestern (W)

Almost certain to be one of the worst Big Ten games of the year. While Bielema is right that Illinois could  lose against all 12 opponents, the Wildcats are firmly the 12th-best team Illinois will face.

2023 Projection: 8-4 (6-3), 2nd in B1G West


By far the haziest outlook the Crystal Ball has produced. Any outcome from 6-6 to 11-1 — yes, 11-1 — is feasible for this Illinois team. That’s as wide a range as we have foreseen in this year’s B1G.

For the top end of the projection to play out, Altmyer needs to prove himself as a dynamic quarterback. Or maybe just 1 level above “game manager” would suffice if the running game can match last year’s output in its Voltron replacement of Chase Brown.

Illinois will also need to come close to matching last year’s Big Ten-leading total of 24 interceptions, and that will be the most difficult feat to replicate. Even Iowa, which led the B1G with 25 interceptions in 2021, dropped down to 15 last year despite still having one of the Big Ten’s elite defenses.

The likelihood of a drop-off in the secondary has the Crystal Ball envisioning a most likely outcome of 8-4. But that should still result in a New Year’s Day bowl game for the Illini — especially if 2 Big Ten teams reach the CFP again.