It's a battle of struggling programs looking for a spark when the Illinois Fighting Illini host the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the college football and Big Ten opener Saturday. Nebraska's Scott Frost is on the hot seat after a 3-5 season that put the Cornhuskers fifth in the West Division, while Bret Bielema takes over an Illini team that went 2-6 and finished seventh under Lovie Smith. Illinois knocked off heavily favored Nebraska 41-23 in Lincoln last season, but the Huskers still come in as the road favorite. The game was scheduled to be played in Dublin, Ireland, but had to move to Champaign's Memorial Stadium because of COVID protocols.
Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. ET. Caesars Sportsbook lists the Cornhuskers as seven-point favorites in its latest Nebraska vs. Illinois odds, while the over-under for total points scored is down to 52.5 after opening four points higher. Before finalizing any Illinois vs. Nebraska picks, check out the college football predictions from the SportsLine Projection Model.
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- Nebraska vs. Illinois: Cornhuskers -7
- Nebraska vs. Illinois over-under: 52.5 points
- Nebraska vs. Illinois money line: Cornhuskers -280, Fighting Illini +220
- NEB: The Huskers are 14-0 all-time in August games.
- ILL: The Illini have won 22 consecutive home openers.
Why Nebraska can cover
Frost will have a familiar face under center in talented but inconsistent junior Adrian Martinez, and the Huskers are 6-2 against IU since joining the Big Ten. The Illini had the second-worst record in conference games in the five seasons under Smith (10-34), and Bielema might need time to revamp the defense. It ranked 114th in total yards (467) and 116th against the run (230) last season. Martinez has been up-and-down, but he has played well in two starts against the Illini, throwing for a combined 618 yards and six TDs with one interception in 2018 and 2019.
The running game will likely be the key, and Martinez is a true threat. He has a run of at least 40 yards each of the past three seasons and has 1,776 yards and 22 TDs on the ground. The Cornhuskers defense has 10 starters returning, so a more experienced unit should improve on its 386 yards (50th in FBS) and 29 points allowed (64th). The Illini averaged 349 yards (T-98) and just 20 points (11th) last season. Nebraska is 8-7 ATS on the road under Frost and has won consecutive away games, with all three road losses last season coming against top-20 teams.
Why Illinois can cover
Illinois is 9-1 in its past 10 season openers, while the Huskers have lost four straight, and Bielema is 11-1 in such games as an FBS head coach. The Illini dominated last season's game against a Huskers team favored by 17, and Bielema's knowledge and past success should breed even more confidence. They racked up 490 yards, including 285 on the ground, and forced five turnovers in the victory. The core of that Illini team is back, including running backs Mike Epstein and Chase Brown, who combined for 223 yards (7.7 per carry) and three TDs.
The Fighting Illini have 18 starters returning, including quarterback Brandon Peters, who provides stability after missing three games last season. The team used four different QBs because of injuries and the pandemic, and Peters played well against the Huskers. He threw for 205 yards and ran for 36, with two total touchdowns. The Illinois defense has improved its pass rush and linebacking corps, and it could cause problems for the mistake-prone Martinez. The junior has been sacked 57 times, fumbled 32 and thrown 20 interceptions in three seasons.
How to make Illinois vs. Nebraska picks
SportsLine's model is leaning over on the total, projecting the teams to combine for 54 points. The model also says one side of the spread hits in 60 percent of simulations. You can only get the pick at SportsLine.
So who wins Nebraska vs. Illinois? And which side of the spread hits in 60 percent of simulations? Visit SportsLine now to find out which side of the spread you need to jump on Saturday, all from the model that has crushed its college football picks, and find out.