A nail doesn’t have a rivalry with a hammer, nor does a hammer have much beef with the nail. But, every so often, and those of us that have tried to hang pictures on the wall will understand, that nail gets you and changes the dynamic of the next swing.
Last season, against all odds, in one of the biggest upsets in recent Vegas memory, Lovie Smith’s Fighting Illini overcame a 30.5 point spread to knock off the no. 6 ranked Wisconsin Badgers with a last second field goal. And all of a sudden, the nail has the hammers attention ahead of a Friday night matchup in Camp Randall Stadium that kicks off the Big Ten season.
LISTEN: Illini Preview Podcast
This narrative is the only one I could find to explain how the bookmakers could look at the experienced and talented team that Illinois brings back, understand that the Wisconsin quarterback will be playing in his first game, and set an opening line of -23.5 for Wisconsin. That line, and hopefully you have Illinois plus the points, has dropped like a rock over the last few days and currently sits somewhere between 18.5 (Bet365) and 19.5, and it’s still tough to see a world in which you’re getting value with Wisconsin.
The Illini return 80% of a highly rated offensive line, it’s entire secondary, a senior quarterback with all the same (pretty pretty pretty good) receivers, and stocks the pond with transfers from programs like Georgia, USC, and Miami. But somehow, it’s a team that has found the radar of its staunch supporters, and those that follow the Big Ten closest, but still not the Vegas prognosticators.
It would be silly to think I know more than those that are paid good money to fool me into losing money, but the same was true for Illinois lines last year; where good money was made on both sides of the line. Predicting the upset against Michigan State wasn’t all that daring, nor was believing they’d drop the last regular season game against Northwestern when they were missing everyone of note from injury. The opening line for this season doesn’t seem to be any different.
Camp Randall Stadium, one of the more daunting places to be a road team, will be completely empty because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So Wisconsin isn’t getting any extra points for “Jump Around” before the 4th quarter, or the obligatory flag or two that always ends up being incited by a raucous crowd. And sure, I can see a world where the Wisconsin program is crisp and ready to roll over an Illinois team that should hover around .500 for the year, but that possibility is well less likely than Illinois’ experience keeping it close. As long as this line doesn’t creep any closer towards 17, I’m confident Illinois puts on a good enough performance to cover in Madison.
Happy footballing Big Ten!
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