2019 Illini Football: What it Was and What it Was Not

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Bill Parcells was completely right: “you are your record.” When you’re 6-6, it means you’re mediocre. However, the epitome of mediocrity that is/was 2019 Illini football feels a little different because being average is a major improvement from where the program has been lately.

Going from really bad to rather pedestrian is real, legitimate progress, but it’s certainly not a magical season by any means and to suggest that it is is laughably and incoherently wrong. Illini football had one amazing upset, against all odds, over a New Year’s Six bowl team. They also achieved a thrilling, record-setting comeback against a fellow mediocre side. The rest was 4-6 with four wins over some pretty bad teams.

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However, that’s plenty good enough to get you to a bowl game these days, and Illinois will find themselves underdogs in the Redbox Bowl against California. In looking at the various college football predictions against the spread being made this bowl season, you’ll see that Cal is favored, at most sports books by 4.5, with an over/under of 44. That means the bookies foresee a 24-20 Golden Bears victory, and if Illini football are to pull off the upset, they must do so in a de facto road game.

That’s been a familiar narrative for the program this millenium, as every single bowl game they have been in since 2001 has been a quasi-road game, if not in spectator allegiance than at least in terms of geography. It’s just ingrained in Illini football bowl history.

See the map below: 

With that in mind, this is the fourth Illini football team to finish the regular season 6-6 this decade, and one could argue it’s the third best of those four teams (2010 was probably the best one, 2014 was definitely the worst, 2011 was likely slightly better than this group). With that said, the 2019 Illini football season was weird, strange, rarely, if ever adhering to what the oddsmakers believed it should have, and thus we have a wide array of opinions on what it actually was, and what it was not.

For a real breakdown, let’s go week by week.

Akron W 42-3

Exactly what you’re supposed to do when you’re playing an 0-12 dumpster fire train wreck that gave up 21+ to everybody they played this season. The Zips also gave up 30+ nine times and 40+ five times.

@ UConn W 31-23

Way too close for comfort against a 2-10 mess of a team that isn’t very far removed from breaking Division I records that placed them amongst the worst defenses in the history of college football.

Eastern Michigan L 31-34

Unacceptable, by any stretch, and Illini football fans were absolutely right to be calling for Lovie Smith’s dismissal, at this point in time, before things started to turn around.

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Nebraska L 38-42

Illinois absolutely should have won this game, given the TO margin, but c’mon, you gave up 700 yards of offense to a team that couldn’t even qualify for a bowl. Given that statistic, a one possession defeat isn’t actually too bad.

Minnesota L 40-17

There is only one thing that this team did consistently, at an elite level, all season long and that’s force turnovers. They were also excellent at scoring off those turnovers and the ability to do kept this from being a 56-3 result or something of that nature.

Michigan L 42-25

An excellent #FakeRally covering the spread, and it was in the second half of this game that this team finally started to show the first real signs of progress of the Smith era.

Wisconsin W 24-23

If Illinois goes 7-5 or better next season, then you can start to talk about this monumental upset over the Big Ten West champs as a turning point for the program.

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@ Purdue W 24-6

It helped that the Boilermakers were down to third and fourth string guys at the skill positions, but Illinois took care of business like they should have against a team in this situation. Both teams had to play in a monsoon, but the Illini adapted; Purdue did not.

Rutgers W 38-10

This is what you do when play the team with the worst offense in Big Ten history, and a side that had a league season that was as bad as 1981 Northwestern. 

@ Michigan State W 37-34

School record setting comeback as Brandon Peters and company deregulated, privatized and recorded sky high profits off the East Lansing, MI No Fly Zone. It clinched a bowl bid, meaning that for the first time ever in the Josh Whitman era, fans of Illini revenue sports had nice things again.

@ Iowa L 10-19

From 0-63 at home to just nine points on the road, in one year, shows a massive leap in progress.

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Northwestern L 10-29

No excuse for failure to even show up in this one. Even with a bowl bid clinched, Smith made a terrible decision here to rest so many of his regulars, as there was still plenty of play for. It’s one thing to lose to your rival, for the fifth time in a row, in the worst season that rival has had in two decades.

It’s quite another to get utterly destroyed by them and give up almost 400 yards rushing the day before they fire their offensive coordinator and you’re a.) crowing about moving up the season ticket renewal just four days prior and b.) trying to sell bowl game packages to one of the most expensive places in the country.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net, which is partnered with News Now. Banks, the author of “No,  I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” regularly appears on WGN CLTV and co-hosts the “Let’s Get Weird, Sports” podcast on SB Nation

You can follow Banks, a former writer for NBC Chicago.com and Chicago Tribune.com on Twitter here and his cat on Instagram at this link.

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