It has been nearly ten years since Bret Bielema last coached a game in the Big Ten and four years since he last coached for the Arkansas Razorbacks, but on Saturday, he officially makes his return to the head coaching scene when his Illinois Fighting Illini play host to Scott Frost’s Nebraska Cornhuskers.
In December, Bielema was hired at Illinois as a replacement for Lovie Smith, who in five seasons with Illinois went just 17-39 and made it to postseason play just once, in 2019. Scott Frost is entering his fourth season at his alma mater. The former Nebraska quarterback has struggled to get the Cornhuskers but to a level of national relevance and has just a 12-20 record.
This season appears to be a potential make-or-break season for Frost, and a loss to Illinois to open the season would seem to cap the Huskers season win total around seven with difficult games against Oklahoma, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Iowa all on the schedule.
A win against the Illini, a program Frost has been successful against aside from last season’s 41-23 defeat in Lincoln, would set the Huskers on a path to a likely 3-0 start before traveling to Norman, Oklahoma, to rekindle their old Big 12 rivalry with the Sooners.
A win for Illinois would keep a lot of offseason momentum for Bielema’s program. Illini fans have welcomed Bielema’s outspoken personality and have taken a liking to his commitment to making Illinois a sustained winner, something that hasn’t been accomplished since the Mike White and John Mackovic years in the 1980s.
Illinois and Nebraska kickoff at 1:00 p.m. ET on FOX and are the first college football game of the entire 2021 calendar season. Despite fans not being allowed inside Big Ten stadiums last season, Illinois is not expecting to sell out Memorial Stadium, but they are expecting a large crowd.
Illinois is a 6.5 point home underdog, and Nebraska is -265 on the money line. The over-under is currently set at 55.5.
What to expect
Bielema and his staff have kept nearly all of their scheme plans a secret throughout training camp, so it’s difficult to project what kind of offensive attack Illinois is going to roll out. Defensively, the keyword for the Illinois defense is “multiple.” Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters doesn’t seem to have a base front defense. In the spring game, Illinois showed a base 3-4 front in the spring game, but they could also roll out a 4-2-5 defense against teams that run a spread offense, like Nebraska’s.
Nebraska’s offense was somewhat of an enigma last season. Quarterback Adrian Martinez was benched at one point in the regular season for Luke McCaffrey, who has since transferred. Martinez is now expected to be the unquestioned starting quarterback for Nebraska. In seven games last season, Martinez completed more than 71 percent of his passes for 1,055 passing yards and four touchdowns to three interceptions. On the ground, he ran for 521 yards and seven touchdowns.
Martinez still has game-breaking ability, and he has been great against Illinois in his career. How well Illinois defense is able to control, Martinez could decide the outcome of Saturday’s game.
The biggest key for Illinois is going to be establishing the run and stopping the run. Bielema has made it clear that he wants to run the football, and with a group of backs that includes Chase Brown, Chase Hayden, Reggie Love, and Mike Epstein, the Illini should be able to do that.
Especially because the Illinois offensive line returns three starters in left tackle Vederian Lowe, center Doug Kramer, and right tackle Alex Palczewski. Joining those three is former Wofford all-conference member Blake Jeresaty.
This is a tough one to pick. The Illini’s 41-23 victory last season gives many a reason to believe that Bielema is able to start his Illini tenure 1-0, but it’s also an Illinois team that won just two games last season and looked seriously overmatched in the other six games last season.
It’s a really important game for Frost and his future as the head coach in Lincoln, and he has said multiple times this offseason that he is more confident in this roster than any of his other three Cornhusker teams.
The spread (Nebraksa -6.5) is really hard to predict, but taking the Cornhuskers on the money line is where the safe money is at. The over-under is also tough because the Illini defense has been terrible the last five seasons, but a new scheme could help revamp a group that has loads of senior talent.
Still, take the over because it’s hard to see an Illinois defense completely flip the script on what has been some of the worst defensive play in Big Ten
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