Nebraska vs. Illinois Betting Odds & Picks: Target the Total in Saturday’s Big Ten Battle (August 28)
James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: Brandon Peters.
Nebraska vs. Illinois Odds
Big Ten football is back, and the fall camp atmosphere could not be more different between Illinois and Nebraska.
Multiple NCAA violations against the Cornhuskers have been reported by The Action Network’s Brett McMurphy, leaving new athletic director Trev Alberts in a scramble from a public relations perspective.
As for head coach Scott Frost, this event has pushed him to the front of the list on the coaching hot seat.
Alberts noted the situation, “predates my hire… I became aware after my hire.”
As for Illinois, a new coach with prior Big Ten experience comes in the form of Bret Bielema. After multiple Rose Bowl trips with Wisconsin, the head coach was fired from Arkansas before filling various roles in the NFL.
The former Big Ten coach has had big wins on the recruiting trail, locking up nine in-state players. Bielema will look to establish a physical identity starting with trench play.
While Nebraska had been shy to release information on COVID protocols or the number of players associated with the virus, but Alberts recently announced the Cornhuskers own a 90% vaccination rate. Meanwhile, Illinois has all but just one player in the travel squad vaccinated.
Putting the off-field news to the side, Nebraska has two different stories between the offense and the defense.
The offense returns 64%, led by quarterback Adrian Martinez. The Fresno native is in his fourth year and has the ability to fill a highlight reel with a clean game from a turnover perspective.
The unit will look to replace multiple offensive linemen and the top pass-catcher in Wan’Dale Robinson, who transferred to Kentucky.
The defense should rank in the upper tiers of the Big Ten. The Cornhuskers lose just two tacklers from their top 2020 unit for a TARP ranking of 89%, well above the national average of 76%. The numbers were middling with a rank of 64th in Defensive Success Rate and 60th in Havoc.
Nebraska has been on the hunt to define a backfield for the running game.
Offensive coordinator Matt Lubick took over duties after the departure of Troy Walters to the Cincinnati Bengals. Although Lubick was the wide receivers coach beforehand, the rush-pass ratio did not change in 2020.
Nebraska ran the ball on 59% of snaps, keeping a rank of 35th highest in the nation.
The running back battle between USC transfer Markese Stepp and a handful of freshmen has been ongoing. Frost had a quick and crisp presser earlier in the week but mentioned Sevion Morrison as a standout in camp.
— Chaz in SoCal ❄️ (@Chaz_in_Socal) May 6, 2021
There are questions along an offensive line that is expected to have a couple of new starters and a handful of freshmen. Left tackle sees the departure of Brenden Jaimes — who had 471 snaps in 2020 — and will be replaced by freshman Turner Corcoran, who pulled one of the lowest rush blocking grades on the team through 106 snaps. Guard Marr Schterman took just two snaps last year and only 31 in 2019, highlighting the inexperience on the line.
Nebraska finished 13th in Rushing Success Rate with a near 60% rush rate but was hampered by a rank of 110th in Havoc Allowed. Fumbles and tackles for loss are certainly an area of concern as the Cornhuskers look to continue work on the ground while limiting Martinez’s rushing attempts.
Coordinator Erik Chinander has run the 3-4 scheme since his Central Florida stint and continues to run heavy blitzes on opposing quarterbacks.
The defense returns 89%, per TARP, but own a middling rank in Success Rate and Havoc through 2020.
Damion Daniels has been named captain after a disruptive spring game and continued leadership in fall camp. JoJo Domann returns the most Havoc from last season after recording 6.5 tackles for loss and five pass breakups.
— Brian Johannes (@Draft_Brian) November 17, 2020
Because of the returning personnel to a familiar scheme, there is no expected drop in 2020 advanced statistics.
The Cornhuskers ranked 13th in tackling and top-60 in Havoc, Line Yards and Opponent Rushing Success Rate. If one area lacks for the Blackshirts, the Sack Rate fell to 98th last season.
Bielema has had a positive camp with limited injuries but has been quiet on all starting positions — with the exception of quarterback Brandon Peters.
There certainly is direction that the team will be molded to prior Bielema rosters at Arkansas and Wisconsin.
Offensive coordinator Tony Petersen comes in from Appalachian State, a program with an offensive identity that starts with rushing the ball. The Bielema philosophy of big and physical in the trench should see Illinois attempt to establish the run often.
Ryan Walters accepted the position as defensive coordinator after spending the past six seasons on staff at Missouri. Bielema has typically run a 4-3 scheme in his years as head coach at the FBS level, similar to that of former Illinois head coach Lovie Smith.
Fighting Illini Offense
The only known starter is Peters, but center Doug Kramer has been the anchor of the offensive line for years. Vederian Lowe played almost every snap at left tackle and posted the best pass-blocking grade on the team in 2020. Right tackle Alex Palczewski had one of the highest run-blocking grades through 196 snaps last season.
Bielema certainly picked a great spot to get back into college football when it comes to inheriting an offensive line with experience and size.
The question remains how much Peters will be allowed to pass in standard downs.
Both Bielema and Petersen will look to establish the rush with a stable of running backs that includes transfer Chase Hayden and last year’s leading rusher, Chase Brown.
— Illinois on BTN (@IllinoisOnBTN) November 21, 2020
Brown figures to be a heavy part of this offense after creating 20 missed tackles in 102 rushing attempts last season. He was targeted 10 times out of the backfield in 2020 as well.
Considering Bielema has a bag full of tricks that includes offensive linemen catching touchdowns, the Illini will look to improve from a rank of 121st in Passing Success Rate.
Fighting Illini Defense
Walters inherits just 59% of the defense that ranked 124th in Success Rate. Breaking even further into the statistic, Illinois was 125th in Opponent Passing Success Rate and just 116th on the ground.
With a coverage rank of 104th as well, there’s plenty of work in front of Walters to move this defense out of the cellar of FBS.
If there are bright spots from a defense that returns every contributor with low quality of play, the Fighting Illini did rank 37th in tackling and 56th in Sack Rate.
It remains to be seen whether the hire of Bielema and Walters is enough to fix the leaks on defense.
Nebraska vs. Illinois Matchup Analysis
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Nebraska Offense vs. Illinois Defense
Illinois Offense vs. Nebraska Defense
Pace of Play / Other
Nebraska vs. Illinois Betting Pick
The Action Network power ratings project this line closer to Nebraska -6, just a shade off the current touchdown in the market. The better play may come on the total.
When Bielema left college football, Arkansas finished with an adjusted pace outside of the top 100. Petersen ended his tenure at Appalachian State last season with a rank of 96th in seconds per play. There is nothing suggesting Illinois will run tempo or increase its Success Rate on the ground.
As for Nebraska, Frost has made it clear that establishing the run with a stable of running backs takes priority over designed runs by Martinez. The Cornhuskers are expected to give the entire stable of running backs rushing attempts.
Passing on standard downs will be at a premium between Nebraska and Illinois.
Based upon last year’s projections, the total would have fallen at 49.5. Nebraska and Illinois finished 91st and 113th, respectively, in Offensive Finishing Drives.
While the Illinois defense must rebound from a rank of 115th in Finishing Drives, Nebraska may be left to kick field goals in double-digit expected winds.
Considering the offensive styles and a stout Nebraska defense, the under is the play in Week 0.
Pick: Under 55