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Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 13:49 PM

Illinois vs. Wisconsin Predictions, Odds, Preview

  • October 22, 2020
  • By Joe Nelson

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The long awaited and delayed Big Ten season will start Friday night as Illinois visits Wisconsin in a rematch of a memorable contest from the 2019 season.

Wisconsin was an undefeated top 10 team last October with impressive dominant wins over Michigan and Michigan State, but late turnovers fueled an upset for Illinois, sparking a bowl breakthrough for the Illini in 2019.

There are some notable changes for both teams in 2020 as the eight-game conference slate kicks off this week.

Here is a look at Friday’s Big Ten opener between Illinois and Wisconsin.


Illinois-Wisconsin Betting Odds

Line Movements

  • Spread: Wisconsin -19.5
  • Money-Line: Wisconsin -1200 Illinois +750
  • Total: 51.5

How to Handicap Illinois-Wisconsin

Turning to a former NFL head coach with a Super Bowl appearance, Lovie Smith was an exciting hire in 2016 for an Illinois program mostly mired in mediocrity or worse for most of its recent history. Smith’s fourth season in 2019 seemed headed towards a similar fate after a 9-27 record in his first three seasons with only four Big Ten wins.


After a pair of non-conference wins to start 2019, Illinois had lost four games in a row including allowing 124 points combined in three Big Ten games. The season turned around with the 24-23 comeback win over Wisconsin in mid-October, what would be the first of four straight wins for Illinois to land a bowl bid, eventually finishing 6-7 after losing to California in the Red Box Bowl.

2019 was a season of ‘what ifs’ for Wisconsin as had the Badgers finished off Illinois to move 7-0, could they have played better the following week in Columbus? Wisconsin would still go on to make the Big Ten Championship game finishing 7-2 in conference play where they were bested by Ohio State again, though in a more competitive effort than in the regular season meeting.

Wisconsin would lose with some tough turnover luck to Oregon in the Rose Bowl to finish 10-4 in the fifth season under head coach Paul Chryst for a satisfactory campaign, though given how dominant the team was in the 6-0 start, expectations were higher. Wisconsin had blasted both Michigan and Michigan State on the way to 6-0 while outscoring foes 255-29, including four shutouts before the collapse vs. the Illini. After that loss, the team never looked quite the same as this will be a key game for the Badgers to start 2020.

Quarterback Corner

Jack Coan was Wisconsin’s starter all last season after taking over in parts of the 2018 season for Alex Hornibrook. Coan had a nice season line with nearly 70 percent completions but only 18 touchdowns. He did take 19 sacks despite offering more mobility than his predecessor, but as usual Wisconsin’s offense was built on running the ball, last year featuring Jonathan Taylor, a 2,000-yard rusher.

Coan injured his foot in practice in early October as the timetable for his return is unclear after having surgery.

In steps Graham Mertz to lead the Wisconsin offense. Mertz was redshirted last season but did play a few token snaps in two games. Many expected Mertz to win the starting position ahead of last season as he is one of the most notable Wisconsin recruits ever, considered a top 25 recruit nationally coming out of Blue Valley North in Kansas. He made waves in the All-American Bowl as the game’s MVP. Expectations will be high for his starting debut.

For those expecting a lot out of Mertz it is worth telling the story of Brandon Peters, also a player of the year as a high school senior in his home state of Indiana. He was an Elite 11 quarterback in 2015 and like Mertz, was considered a top 5 quarterback recruit in his class. Peters enrolled at Michigan and his coach Jim Harbaugh compared him to Andrew Luck as many Wolverines fans thought he might win the starting job in 2016 as a true freshman.

Peters wound up fourth on the depth chart that season though due to injuries in 2017 he entered in a late October game and led Michigan to a win over Rutgers. He started the next three games going 2-1 with the loss to Wisconsin while suffering a concussion. He returned for the Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina but in 2018 Mississippi transfer Shea Patterson joined the team along with another prized recruit in Dylan McCaffrey.

Peters played minimally in 2018 and opted to transfer to Illinois in the summer of 2019. As a graduate transfer he was able to play immediately last season and had modest numbers with 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He completed only 55 percent of his passes while taking 24 sacks while working with a much less successful rushing attack than Coan worked with but he was central to the rise for Illinois to the middle of the pack in the Big Ten.

Betting Analysis – Fighting Illini

Straight Up - SU, Against the Spread - ATS, Over-Under (O/U)

  • 2019: 6-7 S/U, 8-5 ATS, 6-7 O/U

Illinois was a rather average team in the Big Ten in 2019 finishing 4-5 with a slightly negative scoring differential.

Among the seven Big Ten West teams, they were fifth in points scored but only three points behind #3 Purdue, while finishing as the fourth best scoring defense in the conference. Illinois wound up with a favorable East crossover draw getting wins over Rutgers and Michigan State but losing to Michigan.

The season was defined in a four-game winning streak starting with the upset over Wisconsin and ending with an improbable road win over Michigan State a game where Peters threw for 369 yards and Illinois overcame a 31-10 deficit in the fourth quarter to win on a touchdown pass with five seconds remaining. That was win #6 to clinch a bowl spot and Illinois would score just 40 combined points the rest of the season in losing the final three games. Peters did not play in the home finale loss to Northwestern as Illinois handed the Wildcats their only Big Ten win of the season.

After an erratic season with inconsistent performances, the offensive continuity should be a strength for the 2020 Illini. Joining Peters is Josh Imatorbhebhe, last year’s top receiver who played a big role in the win over Wisconsin last season.

Illinois has a veteran offensive line as well but last year this was one of the nation’s worst teams in time-of-possession and a rather loaded Wisconsin defense seems likely to be at an advantage. 2019 leading rusher Reggie Corbin has also departed with Jakari Norwood likely in line to lead the rushing game.

Betting Analysis - Badgers

  • 2019: 10-4 SU, 8-6 ATS, 7-7 O/U

While Mertz will grab the headlines the Badgers also must replace Taylor as well as top receiver Quintez Cephus, with both of those skill players now active in the NFL.

The offensive line has some new pieces and with an inexperienced quarterback and with no typical MAC-level tune-up games, it is hard to expect Wisconsin to be highly productive out of the gate. A conservative approach from Chryst seems likely as the Badgers will look to move the chains and control possession, good things to secure a win after a stunning collapse a year ago but not necessarily ideal traits for covering a nearly three-touchdown favorite spread.

Wisconsin DC Jim Leonhard’s defense has good depth and significant returning experience as the defense should be the strength of the team early in the season as it was in the first six games last season before the unit suffered some injuries and the numbers wore down.

The front seven looks impressive with Isaiahh Loudermilk leading the line and Jack Sanborn the top linebacker with the Badgers fifth nationally allowing just 101 rushing yards per game last season.

Nakia Watson figures to eventually lead the Badgers rushing attack after posting 331 yards last season on limited carries as a freshman. Senior Garrett Groshek will likely see a lot of action in the opener as well as the veteran in the unit though a decline from the production Taylor had with over 6,100 yards in three seasons seems inevitable.

Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor are returning receivers while TE Jake Ferguson was the team’s second leading receiver last season, though with only 33 catches.

Historically Speaking


The storyline of this game will be last season’s epic comeback for Illinois as a massive underdog, with a line that surpassed 30 at some outlets. A few betting shops offered Illinois at +5000 on the money-line as well.

It was Wisconsin’s first road game in more than a month and it showed as the Badgers settled for two 2nd quarter field goals to lead just 13-7 at the half. An Illinois fumble handed Wisconsin great field position and a few plays later a touchdown to put the Badgers up 20-7. Wisconsin failed to make it a 16-point lead as they missed a 37-yard field goal late in the third quarter to set up the opportunity for the comeback.

A 3rd-and-long penalty handed Illinois a better opportunity and Peters connected for a gain to midfield on the next drive. Corbin then broke a 43-yard run for a score to put Illinois down by just six heading into the fourth. Wisconsin answered with a field goal to seemingly put the game away up by nine, then stopping Illinois on 4th-and-1 near midfield.

Taylor would fumble with about seven minutes remaining to breathe life into Illinois and Peters hit Imatorbhebhe for a big touchdown pass to suddenly bring Illinois to within two.

The Badgers weren’t able to move the sticks easily, and after a 1st down loss on a run by Groshek and not Taylor, the Badgers passed on back-to-back plays, suffering an interception on 3rd down with just over two minutes to go.

Peters converted a huge 3rd down with under a minute to go and then Dre Brown delivered a rush into field goal range. James McCourt would connect from 39 yards to complete the upset as time expired.

Series History

Closing at +29, last year’s Illinois upset was the biggest by the pointspread of the 2019 season and the largest in FBS play since Iowa State beat Oklahoma in 2017 in Norman.

It was the first win for Illinois in the series since 2007 with a run of nine straight Wisconsin wins though Illinois is on a 7-6 ATS run vs. the Badgers since 2005.

Illinois has not won in Madison since 2002 with Wisconsin on a 4-1 ATS run in the past five home meetings including a 49-20 win at -24 in October 2018 in the most recent instance.

Notable Betting Trends

Fighting Illini

-- Illinois is on a 14-10 ATS run since 2006 as an underdog of 17 or more points and was 7-2 ATS in Big Ten games last season.

-- Under Smith Illinois is 5-15 S/U and 10-10 ATS on the road.

-- Illinois is 4-0 S/U in season openers under Smith though those have all been home games with three MAC foes and an FCS opponent.

-- Illinois has actually started 1-0 each of the past nine seasons.


-- Wisconsin is 29-5 S/U at home under Paul Chryst since he took over in 2015.

-- The Badgers are only 15-19 ATS however and since 2017 Wisconsin is 5-10 ATS as a home favorite of 14 or more including going 2-6 ATS in Big Ten games fitting those parameters.

-- Wisconsin is 4-1 S/U and 3-2 ATS in season openers under Chryst though this will be just the third time in that span.

-- Wisconsin has started at home and the first time the season started with a Big Ten game since 1982.

Illinois-Wisconsin Predictions

  • Score Prediction: Wisconsin 31, Illinois 13
  • Best Bet: Under 51.5

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