For Illinois this week, the road back to respectability runs through Tampa. The Illini haven’t beaten a ranked opponent — or started a season 3-0 — since 2011. They haven’t won a non-conference road game since 2007. Illinois at No. 22 South Florida (Friday, 6 p.m., ESPN) is an opportunity to put those sad streaks to bed and cast the program in a much more flattering light.
“It’s just a big challenge,” coach Lovie Smith said. “We’re playing a ranked opponent. That’s a good football team.”
OK, but how good? No doubt, the Bulls were an impressive 11-win team under Willie Taggart in 2016. So far, though, all they have under Taggart’s successor, Charlie Strong, are victories over San Jose State and Stony Brook that left a whole lot to be desired. The Bulls are 17½-point favorites over the Illini, but they haven’t played like it.
Quinton Flowers is a dynamic zone-read quarterback who, along with tailback Darius Tice, makes what can be an overwhelming USF ground game go. Yet this is where the Illini need to stand up and assert themselves like a Big Ten team, isn’t it?
The USF offensive line has allowed tackles-for-loss galore already this season. Does Smith have Big Ten-quality players on his defense or doesn’t he? If he does, the Illini should be able to be disruptive. Have I mentioned USF’s all-time record against the Big Ten is 2-12?
Illini junior linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips has been impressive. Defensive end Bobby Roundtree is a breakout talent — and one of nine true freshmen who have started for this Illini team, the highest number in the nation. For those scoring at home, that’s not an excuse.
“They’re Fighting Illini football players,” Smith said, “and they need to get the job done.”
The Illini were motivated all last week by being heavy underdogs at home to Western Kentucky of Conference USA. They darn sure should be motivated by being huge underdogs on the road against a team from the American. Oh, and Smith? He might kind of want to walk off the field a winner at Raymond James Stadium — home of the NFL Buccaneers, who fired him from his last job.
Am I crazy? Maybe a little … but not quite enough. If only Smith’s offense were a bit better. Illini take a tough, one-possession defeat, but gain some respect in the process.
On to Saturday we go, and there’s only one place to start: No. 3 Clemson at No. 14 Louisville (7 p.m., Ch. 7). Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson was unstoppable a year ago on the road, but Clemson somehow managed to eke out a third straight narrow victory in what is becoming a very fun rivalry series. The Tigers (2-0), favored by a field goal, are defending national champs, but Jackson, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, was terrifyingly good in opening victories over Purdue and North Carolina.
“Offensively, they’re crazy-good,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “It’s videogame numbers. It’s unbelievable.”
Jackson is averaging 505 yards of total offense. His go-to receiver, Jaylen Smith, already has 300 yards receiving. Will the Cardinals protect well enough up front against a wicked Tigers defense that already has piled up 11 sacks? Will Jackson find some opportunities to make magic happen with his legs? The pick is Louisville in a thrilling upset.
No. 23 Tennessee at No. 24 Florida (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2) is the day’s only other Top 25 matchup. Two ranked teams; two coaches, the 2-0 Vols’ Butch Jones and the 0-1 Gators’ Jim McElwain, whose fan bases remain completely unsold. Favored UF covers the 5-point spread and, more important, notches its first victory.
Oh, Texas at No. 4 USC (7:30 p.m., Fox-32), we all know you’re a pathetic shadow of what you were the last time you played, 12 seasons ago in the greatest national title game of ’em all. Still, it’s nice to see you again. Are the Trojans (2-0) really 16 points better than the Longhorns (1-1)? Another instant classic would be all kinds of awesome. Alas: Fight On 52, Hook ’Em 24.
A big one for the Big Ten: No. 10 Wisconsin at BYU (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7). The twice-beaten Cougars have been terrible up front offensively, but Provo is a tough place to play. The Badgers are favored by a whopping 17 — too rich for my blood. They barely get to 3-0, but a win is a win.
My favorite favorite: No. 25 UCLA -3 at Memphis (11 a.m., Ch. 7). A multiple-time-zone trip plus a morning start? Its t’s dreaded combo for a West Coast team. I’m betting on Bruins QB Josh Rosen anyway.
My favorite underdog: Purdue +8 at Missouri (3 p.m., SECN). The Boilers have played well two weeks in a row. The Tigers have looked like a disaster waiting to happen.
Last week: 5-2 straight up, 4-3 vs. the spread.
Season to date: 11-3 straight up, 9-5 vs. the spread.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.