It didn't take long for the Illini to turn into a Cinderella pick to play in their first bowl game since 2014.

Nevermind that the Illinois football team finished 2-10 last season with a 10-game losing streak, or that head coach Lovie Smith still has the most underclassmen in the nation.

The meter for the Illini is pointing up. Some of that has to do with fifth-year graduate transfer AJ Bush Jr., who Lovie named starting quarterback earlier this week. Some of it has to do with the fact that the Illini really only have one direction to travel.

With no Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State on the schedule, and a favorable schedule that only has the Illini leaving the state of Illinois four times — once in the first six weeks — the season outlook boils down to one simple question: Can the Illini really make a bowl game?

Six wins is all it takes — and it could happen.

The first two weeks (Sept. 1 and Sept. 8, both home)

By all accounts, the Illini should handle Kent State in Week 1 and Western Illinois in Week 2.

The start would be a mirror image of last season's first two weeks when Illinois beat Ball State and Western Kentucky before disaster struck at Raymond James Stadium in a Week 3 loss to South Florida, spurring the losing streak.

These games quickly turn from "Can Illinois win?" to "Who can the Illini get on the field late in the game?"

Record after two weeks: 2-0

South Florida (Sept. 15, Chicago)

A pivotal game in Week 3 feels odd, doesn't it? But consider the game.

If Illinois can travel to Soldier Field in Chicago and beat a South Florida team that lost a lot of offensive firepower, including quarterback Quinton Flowers, the Illini would return home for a Week 4 game against a conference favorite in Penn State with a 3-0 record to open Big Ten play on a Friday night.

Memorial Stadium would be electric.

A loss and the Illini come home at 2-1, respectable, but with memories of last year creeping up and a challenging opponent in Penn State.

This game will be the first true look at Bush against top-level competition, and a chance to see just how much these young players have grown up.

The Knights have their own graduate transfer at QB in Blake Barnett, who started at Alabama before going to a junior college and eventually landing at Arizona State.

South Florida lost a lot, but it's the ultimate prove-it game for Illinois early on.

Record after three weeks: 2-1

Penn State (Sept. 21, home)

This won't be the Penn State team of last year, but that doesn't mean the Nittany Lions are an easy out. Far from it, actually.

Trace McSorley is arguably the best quarterback in the Big Ten and a Heisman candidate. Penn State did lose Saquon Barkley, who was the No. 4 overall pick in the NFL Draft, and has an inexperienced linebacker group.

But the offensive line is gaining early praise from the team.

The goal for the Illini should be stick with the Nittany Lions for two-and-a-half or three quarters.

Record after four weeks: 2-2

Rutgers (Oct. 6, road)

Rutgers head coach Chris Ash is optimistic this season in his third year at the helm. But the Scarlet Knights will start true freshman Artur Sitkowski at quarterback after finishing last year 4-8, including a win over the Illini.

It's a true road game for Illinois — the first one of the season — but the Illini could be carrying a wave of momentum and find themselves healthy of any bruises they come across in the first week after a bye week.

This was circled as a game the Illini should have won last year, and a year older, the Illini are in position to pull it off this year.

Record after five weeks: 3-2

Purdue (Oct. 13, home)

Jeff Brohm didn't waste any time in his first year at Purdue, leading the Boilermakers to a 7-6 record last year.

Purdue opened the season on Thursday night by starting big-armed quarterback Elijah Sindelar, who beat out David Blough for the job. Both quarterbacks have recovered from injuries suffered last season.

The defense has to replace seven starters from last season, but Brohm doesn't appear concerned.

Again, this is a prove it game for the Illini.

Record after six weeks: 3-3

Wisconsin (Oct. 20, road)

The Badgers have been a force in the Big Ten for years, and specialize in the thing that the Illini struggled with last season: Running the football.

This game is similar to Penn State — hang around as long as possible and get the young players more experience in big road games.

Record after seven weeks: 3-4

Maryland (Oct. 27, road) and Minnesota (Nov. 3, home)

These are two important games. A sweep of these teams puts the Illini right around 5-4, needing one win in the final three games to ensure a bowl game.

Maryland is in turmoil and went 4-8 last season. It remains to be seen if DJ Durkin is around for this game, but it's a winnable one for the Illini.

Minnesota is starting walk-on freshman Zack Annexstad at quarterback. PJ Fleck's team is building, but this is also a winnable game for the Illini, especially at home.

Record after nine weeks: 5-4

The final three (at Nebraska, Nov. 10; vs. Iowa, Nov. 17; at Northwestern, Nov. 24)

If things hold, the Illini will need to win one of these games to make it to six wins and a bowl game.

None, however are sure-fire wins.

Scott Frost's coaching background indicates Nebraska will be better this season. Iowa is perpetually a force in conference, and quarterback Nate Stanley is among the Big Ten's best signal callers.

Quarterback Clayton Thornson is back for the Wildcats and will likely need to shoulder more of the offensive responsibilities after running back Justin Jackson was taken in the NFL Draft.

The likeliest wins will come against Nebraska or Northwestern, and either would be a stretch. But a road win at Nebraska could be the cap on a three-game winning streak before hosting Iowa.

Final record: 6-6.

Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25