Big Game Hunting: Should we really believe Illinois-Virginia will be different this time?

Since last year’s 42-14 loss to the Cavaliers, Illini football has been a mixed bag of frustration and, yes, encouragement.

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Illinois v Virginia

Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong did pretty much whatever he wanted in last year’s meting with the Illini.

Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Same old orange-and-blue doormat.

Some things never change.

Is it basketball season yet?

Those three thoughts came to me quickly during last season’s Illinois-Virginia football game. I blinked, the visiting Illini were down 14-0 and my cynic-o-meter nearly went on tilt. They lost that game 42-14. Before long, Bret Bielema’s first Illinois team was 1-4.

Since then? Illini football has been a mixed bag of frustration and, yes, encouragement.

Some things might change. Maybe it’s time to find a new doormat.

Virginia (+4) at Illinois (3 p.m., ESPNU) is a rematch the Illini (1-1) are capable of winning. As you can see, they’re favored to do just that. The line puzzles me, though. Weren’t the Illini outgained by more than 200 yards in last year’s matchup? Don’t the Cavaliers (1-0) still have dual-threat lefty quarterback Brennan Armstrong, the school’s career leader in total offense with over 8,000 yards? Hasn’t UVA finished with a better record than Illinois five seasons in a row?

Just last week, the Illini should have won at Indiana but didn’t. Bloomington was an uncomplicated mission — see bad team, beat bad team — but the Illini blew it. It was like circling the drive-thru for a double cheeseburger and fries and leaving with a fish sandwich and onion rings. What the hell happened?

But here’s the reality of things: Outside of Armstrong, it’s not as if Virginia has better players. As well as Chase Brown is running it — he’s the first FBS player since 2018 to rush for at least 150 yards in the first two games of a season — it might be the Cavs’ defense that’s more on the spot. And good luck blocking the Illini’s Johnny Newton, a rising force.

And, more than all that, it’s a put-up-or-shut-up kind of week. If the Illini aren’t able to knock around an ACC also-ran at Memorial Stadium, progress must be an illusion.

“Before we start winning games,” Bielema keeps saying, “we’ve to stop losing them.”

See that door, Cavs? Lie down right beside it. Illini, 31-20.

OTHER WEEK 2 PICKS

Northwestern Wildcats v Nebraska Cornhuskers - Aer Lingus College Football Classic

Northwestern is off to a strong start.

Photo by Oisin Keniry/Getty Images

Duke (+10½) at Northwestern (11 a.m., FS1): The WIldcats couldn’t win in 2017 or 2018, when Duke had a future NFL quarterback in Daniel Jones. They couldn’t win in 2021, either, when both teams had QB troubles. For whatever reasons, the Blue Devils have been a tough nut for Pat Fitzgerald’s program to crack. It’s kind of strange.

“We’re excited about finally being able to play at home in front of people and show them who we are,” NU QB Ryan Hilinski said, “because it’s way different from last year.”

Is it, though? NU in a white-knuckler — call it 20-16.

No. 1 Alabama (-20) at Texas (11 a.m., Fox-32): Watch the Longhorns put up big plays offensively from running back Bijan Robinson, wideout Xavier Worthy and gloriously mulleted QB Quinn Ewers. This is a fun team, folks. But the Tide? They’re what great looks like. They can match whatever Texas does, and then some … and then some more. Tide, 52-27.

Marshall (+20½) at No. 8 Notre Dame (1:30 p.m., Ch. 5, Peacock): Get that first win, Marcus Freeman. You’ve earned it. Unless, that is, your Irish are flat after an opening game at Ohio State they spent months obsessing over and … uh-oh. Wait, uh-oh? Maybe just a little. Irish, 34-17.

TransPerfect Music City Bowl - Purdue v Tennessee

Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker can really sling it.

Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

No. 24 Tennessee (-6) at No. 17 Pittsburgh (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7): Here’s your game of the day, people. You know, assuming you’re into scoreboards lighting up like pinball machines and all that. Who has the last laugh, Vols QB Hendon Hooker or Panthers QB Kedon Slovis? Vols, 41-38 (OT).

No. 20 Kentucky (+6) at No. 12 Florida (6 p.m., ESPN): Could be tough for the Gators to crank it all the way back up emotionally after their upset of Utah in a wild Week 1 finish. If the Wildcats had running back Chris Rodriguez in the lineup, this would be an upset pick. Instead: Gators, 23-21.

My favorite favorite: Iowa (-3) vs. Iowa State (3 p.m., BTN): Is Iowa’s offense irreparably broken? Why is Spencer Petras still the QB? How can Kirk Ferentz’s son Brian still be the offensive coordinator? Yep, the Hawkeyes have issues — but beating the rival Cyclones ain’t one of ’em. Make it seven years in a row.

My favorite underdog: No. 9 Baylor (+3) at No. 21 BYU (9:15 p.m., ESPN): Provo at night is a scary place, but the Bears rag-dolled BYU up front last year in Waco. Guess whose big uglies returned pretty much intact on both sides of the ball?

Last week: 6-1 straight up, 5-2 vs. the spread.

Season to date: 7-2 straight up, 7-2 vs. the spread.

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