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Big Game Hunting: Illini visit Iowa with bowl hopes flickering — and without Bret Bielema

The picks are in for Illinois-Iowa, Purdue-Northwestern, Michigan State-Ohio State, Arkansas-Alabama, Oregon-Utah and more.

Maryland v Illinois
The Illini will be without their coach at Iowa.
Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Bret Bielema can’t go home again. Not this time. A breakthrough case of COVID-19 will keep him in isolation — vaxxed, boostered and not feeling poorly aside from having to miss Illinois (+12½) at No. 17 Iowa (1 p.m., FS1).

How hard is it to be unable to coach the Illini against his alma mater?

“I’m sure this is going to be one of those out-of-body experiences that maybe parents have already lived many times in their lives,” he told reporters via Zoom this week. “I’ve just got to watch them.”

Assistant head coach George McDonald, who played wideout and returned kicks at Illinois, will steer the ship as the Illini — who were 100% vaccinated heading into the season — try to end a seven-game losing streak to the Hawkeyes and spark a fun week of bowl talk. Beating Iowa and then Northwestern would lock the Illini into a bowl at 6-6. Even if they finish 5-7, though, they might get an invite because of a shortage of bowl-eligible teams around the country to fill a typically absurd number of bowl slots.

“Great story, great concept from the outside world,” Bielema said of the bowl business. “But this week’s game is about this week’s game.”

OK, then. It’s about the Hawkeyes winning each of the last seven head-to-head games by at least nine points, the low point for the Illini coming when they were obliterated by 63 in 2018. And it’s about Bielema, 51, a long-ago Iowa walk-on who developed into a team captain and, to this day, sports — have you heard? — a Hawkeye tattoo on his left leg.

“I’ve never met a successful man who wasn’t proud of where he came from,” he said.

The tattoo includes the words “believe” and “achieve.” The Illini put those words into action when they won at Penn State. Not so much when they came home and lost to Rutgers. They aren’t the easiest team to figure out.

But the Hawkeyes are kind of strange, too. Even at 8-2, they have the worst offense in the Big Ten. Take away their 19 interceptions on defense — which leads the country — and there’s nothing else they do at a you-can’t-beat-us level.

Two words for Illini quarterback Brandon Peters: Be careful. What, you were expecting “believe and achieve”? Hawkeyes, 17-12.

OTHER WEEK 12 PICKS

Illinois v Northwestern
Football returns to Wrigley, where Illinois topped Northwestern in 2010.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Purdue (-11) at Northwestern (11 a.m., BTN, 720-AM): Hey, look, a football game at Wrigley Field. The explosive Boilermakers want to get into the Wildcats’ bullpen as early as possible and keep the pressure on. And how long before NU manager Pat Fitzgerald turns to secret weapon Frank Schwindel? Boilers pull away and cover.

No. 7 Michigan State (+19) at No. 4 Ohio State (11 a.m., Ch. 7): The question isn’t if the Buckeyes will have another big day on offense. Of course they will. But what reason is there to believe they’ll keep the Spartans from going up and down the field? Payton Thorne, Kenneth Walker III, Jayden Reed — these guys are no slouches. Buckeyes, 45-31.

No. 10 Wake Forest (+4½) at Clemson (11 a.m., ESPN): Wake Forest winning in Death Valley is essentially the same thing as Rutgers winning at Ohio State, Vanderbilt winning at Georgia, the Bears winning in Green Bay — you get the picture. It can’t happen or else the universe surely will collapse back in on itself, making it awfully difficult for us to fry turkeys in our driveways on Thursday. Tigers by seven.

Notre Dame v Virginia
Lorenzo Styles and the Irish look to keep rolling.
Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Georgia Tech (+17½) at No. 8 Notre Dame (1:30 p.m., Ch. 5): The Irish still have vulnerable teams ahead of them in the playoff rankings. There’s no excuse not to make this one look good. Brain Kelly’s defense picks up where it left off against Virginia — 34-13.

No. 21 Arkansas (-20½) at No. 2 Alabama (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2): Counting backward starting with last season, the scores in this series were 52-3, 48-7, 65-31, 41-9 … please, stop me when you’re bored. Tide by enough.

SMU (+11) at No. 5 Cincinnati (2:30 p.m., ESPN): It’s not Cincy that has the best offense in the American. It’s not Cincy that has — and this is impressive — attempted the most passes in the league while also allowing the fewest sacks. The Mustangs are 8-2 and have zero pressure on their shoulders. Bearcats, barely.

No. 3 Oregon (+3) at No. 23 Utah (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7): The Utes are on an eye-opening tear in the run game and win their pass rush. Roasted duck, anyone? Pac-12 playoff hopes are dashed again.

My favorite favorite: No. 15 Wisconsin (-9) vs. Nebraska (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7): Fun fact: One of these schools is 6-0 against the other since they started playing for the Freedom Trophy in 2014. Make it 7-0 as the Badgers cover for the fifth straight week.

My favorite underdog: Missouri (+9) vs. Florida (3 p.m., SEC): Going back to last season, the Gators have lost eight of their last 10 games against Power Five opponents. Neither of those lonely “Ws” happened on the road. Upset.

Last week: 6-4-1 straight-up, 4-6-1 vs. the spread.

Season to date: 68-35-1 straight-up, 56-46-2 vs. the spread.