By Paul Schmidt
The success and failure of the Illinois Fighting Illini football season isn’t a difficult prospect. With the previews in, the necessity of the offense to take care of the ball and the defense to force turnovers and play soundly is pretty well known, but in the end the Illini will have to try really hard to miss a bowl game again this season.
The only question left, then, is what type of bowl game can they can make.
First and foremost, there’s the games that, barring a series of unforeseen events, they will not lose. The Illini have four of those games: Illinois State, Indiana, Purdue and Michigan. If Illinois loses any of these games, the season is not only an unmitigated disaster, Ron Zook should be fired immediately with his entire staff as well as Athletic Director Ron Guenther. Without mercy or prejudice. Quite simply, they are un-losable games. They just are.
So, let’s take the remaining eight Illini games piece by piece, as they are the ones that will shape the way the Illini season goes.
9/5, Missouri (in St. Louis)– Missouri has constantly been a thorn in the Illini’s side since renewing the Arch Rivalry in football. Why these games can’t be played on Mizzou’s and Illinois’ campuses on alternating years is mystifying to me, though. How St. Louis qualifies as a neutral site when your opponent is Missouri is baffling to me. It’s like saying the United Center in Chicago is a neutral site for Illinois basketball…there’s a reason why they’ve only lost twice there all time.
Just on the basis of returning stars and players overall, the Illini should win this game going away. With so many skill players graduated from Mizzou, it would seem as though they would have trouble scoring points against an Illinois defense that should be much improved.
The problem is, no one knows just how improved the Illini will be on the defensive side of the ball, and in a rivalry such as this, if either team gets a little bit of life breathed into it, that might be all they need to make a run.
VERDICT: Win, and a fantastic yardstick with which to measure the team’s prospects.
9/26, at Ohio State –Illinois obviously has a history of success in the Horseshoe. A stadium that is typically a house of horrors for most teams has been really somewhat neutral for the Illini. Some very bad Illinois teams have
gone into Columbus and performed very well, and you don’t have to go very far back to remember an un-ranked orange and blue squad coming away with a win against the number one team in the country (in a related story, it got a little dusty inside Joe’s Bar on Weed Street in Chicago- also the night I got my first tattoo).
While last seasons’ game against the Buckeyes was viewed as something of a revenge game, expect this season’s game to act as the Buckeyes’ actual act of revenge as they take the Illini out to the woodshed.
VERDICT: Loss, and probably by more than a few points.
10/3 vs. Penn State– The Illini might be looking for their own measure of revenge against the Nittany Lions at home. The Illini weren’t exactly embarrassed on national TV last year, but the game certainly turned their season the wrong direction. They never seemed to recover any momentum after that loss.
A team that features Darryl Clark, Evan Royster and more returning from a BCS team last season, they seem to be primed for a run toward a Big Ten title at the least. While I don’t think the Illini’s defense can stop a dynamic Penn State attack, I do think this is a winnable game at home for them. Not that they actually WILL win it…it’s just a winnable game.
VERDICT: Loss, but a close one that might come down to the last possession.
10/10, vs. Michigan State –The constant praise heaped upon the Spartans is a little mystifying to me. Easily their best player graduated. And while their defense will again be strong, losing Javon Ringer will most likely make a weak offense last year even more stagnant this. Maybe there’s something there. I just don’t see it.
Also, there’s the problem they have less of a history of back to back successful seasons than Illinois does, and that’s really saying something.
VERDICT: Win, and I think it could be a blowout at home.
11/7, at Minnesota –
The Illini never play well at the Metrodome…the Golden Gophers have almost always dominated us there.
Wait, they opened their new stadium? They don’t play in the Humpdome anymore? Then this one is a gimme!
VERDICT: Win, and a measure of revenge for a homecoming loss last year.
11/14, vs. Northwestern –The Wildcats dominated the Illini last year, in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated. However, the Wildcats lost their starting QB and RB, starting WR…I mean, the list goes on and on. The Sports Bank founder has a big-time man-crush on Corey Wootton, and I agree that the defense will still be very good, but don’t they suffer from the same problem as the Spartans do? How are they going to score enough points to win? I know they have confidence in Franz Kafka at QB, but, again, I just don’t see it.
VERDICT: Win, and probably another easy one.
11/27, at Cincinnati –The Illini made a conscious effort this season to do two things: Beef up their non-conference schedule, and move their non-conference schedule around so that they wouldn’t have such a long layoff after the Big Ten regular season. This road game against the Bearcats is one of the games that is fulfilling those efforts.
This game scares the bejeezus out of me…hopefully it won’t come down to this as a must-win game for a bowl berth if I’m apocalyptically wrong about the above games. More than anything, the coaching matchup of Brian Kelly versus Ron Zook is…umm…well, let’s just say that doesn’t favor the Illini.
VERDICT: Loss, though with the number of starters that the Bearcats lost, this is a winnable game.
12/5, vs. Fresno State – Senior day, it should be important. This, in my estimation, will be the difference between a New Year’s bowl game and a lesser one. The opportunity to play on New Year’s should be important to this squad. It very much should be….right?
And still, the Bulldogs, a spunky mid-major, will be a stern test that will be difficult to overcome. They will be a fringe bowl team, led by a great head coach in Pat Hill.
The fact it is senior day for so many talented pieces of the Illini squad, that should lead the Illini to victory.
That leads the Illini to a 9-3 record. That’s enough for a major bowl, and would be a spectacular success by anybody’s measure.
The journey starts tomorrow, and it should be a fun ride.