Illinois is a team with a chip on its shoulder this season, trying to avenge from two disappointing seasons in 2008 and 2009.
After the 2009 season, Illinois understood that changes must be made if they wanted to be successful, and many figured that would include the firing of Ron Zook, who complied a 21-39 record in his first five seasons.
But the owner, Ron Guenther, decided it would be best to keep Zook and fire offensive coordinator Mike Schultz, quarterbacks coach Kurt Beathard, wide receivers coach Jim Pry and special teams coach Mike Woodford. They also demoted co-defensive coordinators Dan Disch and Curt Mallory.
The vacancies were filled up as time went by, and the two biggest additions were offensive coordinator Paul Petrino and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning.
From all the moves made during the offseason, expectations were set very low for a talented group of players.
They were expected to finish towards the bottom of the Big Ten and not make a bowl game.
Yet, seven games into the season, Illinois is sitting at a record of 4-3 (2-2) and a bowl game seems highly promising.
The Illini are only two games away from becoming bowl eligible and the rest of its schedule plays out like this: vs. Purdue, at Michigan, vs. Minnesota, at Northwestern, and at Fresno State.
None of the five remaining opponents are ranked in the AP Poll Top 25, and the Illini have the potential to win all five games.
The question is, will they?
Here is my take on all five games and what the final outcome of each game will be.
Saturday, October 30: Purdue at Illinois
The Boilermakers and Fighting Illini both enter next Saturday's contest with a record of 4-3 looking to dramatically improve its chances of making a bowl game.
The Boilermakers are coming off a tough 49-0 loss at Ohio State, and are currently dealing with some tough injuries, preventing them from reaching their full potential.
Purdue's No. 1 and No. 2 quarterbacks coming into the year are done for the season, and its third-string QB, Rob Henry, is questionable this weekend with a cut on his right index finger.
But don't overlook Purdue quite yet. It has proved it can compete against talented teams—as it proved by winning at Northwestern.
Purdue's strongest phase of its offense is the running attack. It averages 177 yards per game on the ground, but the offense has only put up 19.3 points per game, which ranks 102nd in the nation.
This is why I believe Illinois will have no problem with the Boilermakers; Illinois' defense has proven to one of its strongest points this season, and they should have no problem being able to stop an average offense.
The only fear I have is our current struggles on offense, but Purdue's defense is giving up 24.4 points per game (62nd in the nation).
If the Illini can establish a running game with Mikel LeShoure early and often, Illinois will exit Champaign this weekend one win away from becoming bowl eligible.
Prediction: Illinois by 17+
Saturday, November 6: Illinois at Michigan
Michigan (5-2) is arguably the toughest opponent Illinois has remaining on its schedule.
The Wolverines' are led by sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson, who may be the most explosive athlete that Illinois will face all season.
Robinson leads the Wolverines in both rushing (1,096) and passing (1,319) yards. He makes plays with both his arms and legs and has speed that is very rarely seen in a QB.
Unfortunately for Michigan, Robinson can't also play defense. Michigan's defense has hurt them very often this season; they are giving up 28.4 points per game, which ranks 80th in the nation.
This is another game where Illinois' offense must step-up if they hope to win, because Michigan's offense, which averages 36 points per game, will put points on the board.
It is also essential that Illinois limits the amount of possessions Michigan has, and they must win the turnover battle.
But, when all is said and done, it is actually quite simple for Illinois: if they stop Robinson, they win.
The question is, can they?
Prediction: Michigan by 7
Saturday, November 13: Minnesota at Illinois
It is very likely that Minnesota will enter this game 1-9 and 0-6 in conference play. The Golden Gophers are currently 1-7, and they have to face Ohio State and Michigan State before going up against the Illini.
Minnesota's biggest strength is its passing game, led by senior quarterback Adam Weber, who has thrown for 1,961 and 17 touchdowns.
But even his dominance has not proven to be enough for Minnesota's weak defense, who is giving up 31.9 points per game.
Minnesota's defense has struggled tremendously stopping the run, so exposing that weakness will be important for Illinois. Considering that Illinois has one of the top running backs in the Big Ten—running the ball should not be a problem.
This could also be a game to work with young, redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, especially if the running game is doing its job.
Nobody can overlook an opponent at the collegiate level, but this game should not be a problem for Illinois.
Even an average performance by the Illini should be good enough to get past the Golden Gophers.
Final Prediction: Illinois by 21+
Saturday, November 20: Illinois vs. Northwestern at Wrigley Field
The most exciting part about this game to many people will be that it is play at the old confines of Wrigley Field.
I think many people are overlooking how good of a game this has the potential to be.
Two weeks ago, Northwestern (5-2) took a big step back after losing to Purdue, 20-17. They followed that with another loss to No. 5 Michigan State, 35-27. They stayed competitive, however, showing that they are a true threat in the Big Ten.
Senior quarterback Dan Persa is leading the Wildcats in both rushing and passing yards. Persa has 1,850 yards in the air and 341 yards on the ground, piling up a total of 16 touchdowns on the season.
The Wildcats have a strong defense, giving up only 20.7 points per game. Last week against Michigan State, it did a fantastic job shutting down the Spartans strong running game.
The Wildcats key of this game will be to shut down the Illini's running game, hoping to put pressure on Scheelhaase.
I think this game goes down to the wire and it will come down to special teams, which gives the advantage to Illinois.
Prediction: Illinois by 3
Friday, December 3: Illinois at Fresno State
Many may remember this game from last's year shootout in Champaign, where Fresno State won 53-52, and both teams combined for a total of 964 yards.
But, some things have changed for the Bulldogs this season, who currently stand at a record of 5-2.
They are still a strong team, but the rushing attack took a hit after Ryan Matthews left for the draft a year early.
The Bulldogs do return its QB from last year, Ryan Colburn, who has thrown for 1,507 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Fresno State's offense is putting up 34.0 points per game, but its defense is giving up 26.7 points per game, which includes 55 against Mississippi and 49 against Hawaii.
Its biggest test will come up against Boise State—two weeks before they play Illinois—and we will get a feel of how good the Bulldogs really are.
As of right now, I think our defense can contain the Bulldogs, and hopefully our offense will be in sync by this time of the season.
I also think this will be a close game, but the Illini pull out a tough non-conference road victory.
Prediction: Illinois by 7
Once all games are complete, I think Illinois will finish the season at a final record of 8-4, putting them in the top half of the Big Ten.
Many of these games could be close, so it is possible it may lose some. But I think that winning at least six games is very likely, meaning that the Illini will finally be heading to a bowl again.
The Illinois players, coaching staff, and those always-optimistic fans, were very confident heading into the season, even with all the drama surrounding the program the past few years.
They have proven to be right, though, and it is apparent that a new attitude has taken control of the Illinois football program.
It is an attitude missed greatly by Illinois fans for a while now, and it is helping with the players, coaches, and recruits looking to become a part of Illinois.
Just sit back, relax, and enjoy Illinois fans—the program will only continue to go up from here.