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ILLINOIS FOOTBALL

Watch now: After multiple CFB upsets, Illinois look to avoid trend vs. Chattanooga

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CHAMPAIGN — If the Illini hadn’t been warned about "buy games" against FCS opponents, then they got one last weekend.

Northwestern paid Southern Illinois $550,000 to play last weekend as a cupcake out-of-conference game. The only problem was the Salukis upset the Wildcats 31-24.

Illinois (2-1) hosts FCS Chattanooga (3-0) on Thursday in a similar matchup.

“Obviously that’s an easy one to kind of serve up that it happens but I don’t coach Northwestern and don’t worry about Northwestern except one game out of the year,” Illinois coach Bret Bielema said. “It is a constant reminder, and not just FCS, anybody can get anybody on any given football (game) right now in the world that we’re living in with (the) portal and guys playing at a higher level.”

Non-conference college football often puts up these kinds of upsets in buy games. Appalachian State earned $1.5 million to come and upset ranked Texas A&M this season as well.

Illinois paid a little over $1 million to play UTSA last season, and got an introduction to its offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. and a 37-30 loss for its financial contribution to the Roadrunners athletic department.

Safe to say the Illini are on high alert for their final non-conference game. The Mocs are the 10th-ranked team in FCS and have put up at least 30 points in each contest. Chattanooga also gave Illinois all it could handle on the basketball court last March in the first round of the NCAA Tournament with the No. 4-seeded Illini avoiding an upset to the 13-seed Mocs with late free throws.

“The outside world views things differently than people in the building,” Bielema said. “I don’t even know if our guys would say FCS. I know I haven’t said it. I think the part that we have to install, and I said it from our opening game against Wyoming and have said it every game since then to get going into this week: We respect all, fear none. We’re going to play UT-Chattanooga, which everybody is going to point out — from the outside world — that is an FCS.”

The Mocs return 15 starters from last year’s team. Guard Cole Strange was drafted from last year's team in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots.

“They have players at literally every position,” Bielema said. “They’ve won football games and they’re very well thought of and respected, especially in this building.”

Those Mocs were 6-5 in 2021 but also pushed a Kentucky team that ended up winning 10 games to the brink. Chattanooga led in the fourth quarter before a couple late scores turned the tide.

“They certainly gave Kentucky a very strong test and game and were in it for the length of the game,” Lunney said. “I was very impressed with the way they played Kentucky last year at Kentucky. A lot of them are back. They’ve got experience in that environment. We’ll have a similar environment. We can certainly expect their best, whatever that looks like. We certainly would expect their best shot on Thursday.”

Illinois has the NCAA’s leading rusher in Chase Brown and a defense that has rounded into form over the past couple weeks, so it will be a clear favorite. This week will be a chance to see if an offense that is 114th in turnovers lost can right that ship and combine its movement of the football with consistent scoring drives.

It’s also a time where Illinois can avoid a rash of upsets or scares other teams have faced, and instead get a little bang for its buy-game buck.

"This is going to be a big game,” defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said. “Any time you’re playing up a conference, we’re going to get their best shot. If we’re doing what we’re supposed to do then we’ll give them ours as well. It should be a fun, competitive game Thursday night.”

Follow Anderson Kimball on Twitter at: byAndy Kimball

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