Nine out of 10 times, the short answer would be Northwestern, at home, on Nov. 4. Although isn’t it always Northwestern? If you ask our magic elves to ferret out the most likely “trap” game on the Nebraska Cornhuskers’ 2017 football slate, look, we’ll be honest — it’s not that the Wildcats aren’t low-hanging fruit. It’s just that they aren’t hanging as low as you’d think.
For one, the Wildcats could, on paper, be bringing the better quarterback and running back to the party at Memorial Stadium, assuming signal-caller Clayton Thorson’s 2016 surge wasn’t just a product of Austin Carr’s soft hands and Justin Jackson is, well, Justin Jackson.
For another, the Purple isn’t bad — not bad in the Illinois/Rutgers/Purdue-under-Darrell-Hazell sense, anyway — and Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald is a Jordan Westerkamp Hail Mary grab away from riding a three-game winning streak in Lincoln.
Statnik Kenneth Massey projects Northwestern to chase 7.71 “expected” victories; the Huskers, 6.78. A Kittens victory would be an upset, yeah, but not one from the seismic portion of the menu.
So let’s get wacky. The marquee home fortnight is West favorite Wisconsin on Oct. 7, followed by East favorite Ohio State the next weekend — a pair of games that could shape, lift, or sink 2017 altogether. If there is an eyes-off-the-ball chance to slip, it might well be the Sept. 29 visit to Champaign, Ill. Maybe.
Granted, the Fighting Illini are still expected to be in all kinds of flux, and not the good kind, in Lovie Smith’s second season at the controls. With the Boilermakers hiring Jeff Brohm and Minnesota making a splash with P.J. Fleck, there’s a certain logic to the notion the Illini could be the only ones left paddling upstream in the West over the next 20 to 24 months.
But it’s also a Friday tilt. Which means a short week following a visit from Rutgers the Saturday before, and a lot of potential conversations from pesky scribes about the implications of those Badgers and Buckeyes visits to come. If you think Illinois is easy to overlook now, imagine how that trip’s going to look if Team Lovie stumble out of the gate at 1-2, which is likely. Or 0-3, which isn’t all that far off.
From quarterback to defensive stoppers, Illinois has more gaudy question marks than Jim Carrey’s costume in Batman Forever. Conventional wisdom says the Big Red roll the Orange and move along. Then again, conventional wisdom’s free-throw percentage in the Mike Riley Era, so far, lands a heck of a lot closer to Shaquille O’Neal than Steph Curry.