Someone has to be first.
In this year's version of Big Ten football, it will be Illinois and No. 14 Wisconsin teeing it up and kicking it off before everyone else. The Fighting Illini and Badgers start their eight-game conference seasons Friday night in front of an empty Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis.
One of college football's most raucous environments will be sound-free, aside from whatever noise is piped in over the public address system, which could be an aid for Illinois as it tries to deliver a second straight upset against Wisconsin.
Last year's 24-23 decision in Champaign, sealed with a 39-yard field goal by James McCourt as time expired, was the signature win of Lovie Smith's first four years as Fighting Illini coach. Illinois was a 30 1/2-point underdog against the nation's No. 6 team, the largest upset over a Big Ten team in conference history.
This year, the Illini enter as three-touchdown underdogs, a stat Smith pointed to at his Monday press conference.
"It kind of gets you going a little bit," he said. "So we'll be ready to go."
Last year's shocker kick-started a four-game winning streak that made Illinois bowl-eligible for the first time in Smith's reign. With a veteran roster that includes 25 seniors, more than they had in the last two years combined, and four offensive linemen who have combined for 125 career starts, the Illini have finally turned the corner from opponent into competitor.
"I think we're a strong football team," Smith said. "For the most part, our best players are back and we've added quite a few players. We're excited about seeing how we fit into the landscape."
Most expect Wisconsin to fit into its normal spot in the Big Ten -- a contender that could play for the conference championship. But the Badgers will have more obstacles than usual, some expected, others created by bad luck.
The departure of Jonathan Taylor a year early for the NFL came as no surprise. But coach Paul Chryst couldn't have planned for the loss of quarterback Jack Coan to a foot injury on Oct. 10, meaning that redshirt freshman Graham Mertz will get the start.
In two games last year, Mertz completed 9 of 10 passes against Central Michigan and Kent State -- Mid-American Conference competition. This is against a conference foe that last year forced 28 turnovers, tied for fourth in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
"No doubt he's ready for that moment," Wisconsin quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr said of Mertz. "I feel that he's worked really hard to understand defenses and recognize why he's going where he's going with the football."
It doesn't hurt Mertz that the Badgers welcome back eight starters from a rugged defense, including all three linemen and three defensive backs. The secondary ranks among the most experienced in the nation.
Safety Collin Wilder and his teammates, though, will have to back up the program's 62-9 home record over the last 10 years without any fan support.
"Our emphasis is bring your own juice," he said. "We have had practices without music and it is going to be quiet in there. It is going to be up to us to bring our own energy."
--Field Level Media
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