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As the offseason nears its end, the Illinois Fighting Illini enter the fourth year of the Bret Bielema era with hopes of a comeback in the 2024 season. We know reaching a bowl game won't be easy (it's Illini football, after all!), but there are chances for our Orange & Blue to get some confidence-building wins early in the season.

We'll have plenty of time for predictions later, but first, here's a look at some of the top players who will face Illinois during non-conference play. For this exercise, I'll focus on players return to their respective teams in 2024.


Eastern Illinois Panthers (Aug. 29): Illinois opens with an in-state game against an FCS opponent. The Panthers won eight games last season — including their last four meetings — and return many of their best offensive weapons.

Quarterback Pierce Holley is back at EIU for his final year of eligibility. The Georgetown transfer shined in his first year in Charleston, completing 61% of his passes for 2,741 yards, 17 TDs and 7 INTs, earning Second Team All-Big South/OVC honors.

Also returning to the Panthers is redshirt sophomore running back MJ Flowers. The Cincinnati, Ohio product rushed for 854 yards (5.4 ypc) and 8 TDs and also had 35 catches for 192 yards. He was the Big South/OVC Football Association Offensive Freshman of the Year.

Linebacker Elijawah Tolbert was named First Team All-Big South-OVC Football Association and led EIU with 87 total tackles, including 7 TFLs.

Kansas Jayhawks (September 7): KU travels to Champaign in week two, the most important non-conference showdown for Bret Bielema's Illini.

The Jayhawks are led by Jalon Daniels, one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in college football. Daniels played in only three games last season due to injury, but troubled the Illini in Lawrence, completing 21 of 29 passes (72.4%) for 277 yards and two touchdowns in Kansas' 34-23 victory.

TCR // Brad Repplinger

On defense, Lance Leipold's team features a duo of All-Big 12 First Team cornerbacks: Mello Dotson and Cobee Bryant.

Dotson had his breakout season as a junior, totaling 48 tackles (3.0 TFLs), 15 pass breakups and 4 INTs, including two pick-sixes. Bryant finished last season with 32 tackles, 4 INTs and 9 PBUs. He is the first Jayhawk DB to earn First Team honors in consecutive years since Aqib Talib in the 2006-07 season.

Chippewas in Central Michigan (September 14): This year's home game will be the first meeting between the programs.

Running back Marion Lukes is the Chippewas' best all-around playmaker. The 5'10″ tailback finished last season with 737 rushing yards (including a 202-yard game against Northern Illinois), 300 receiving yards and 581 kickoff return yards.

Defensive back Donte Kent, who was named to the All-MAC Second Team last season, is the Chippewas' leading returning tackler (58, 39 solo) and also led the team with 7 PBUs in 2023.

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