The upcoming 2014 football season already had fairly critical implications for Tim Beckman and the future of the Fighting Illini football program. Reach a bowl game? Continue coaching in Champaign. Show no improvement? Pack your bags. But over the past few weeks, even more incentive to make (and ultimately win) that bowl game: two of our regional rivals are looking weaker than they have in quite some time.
Of all the Big Ten football coaches, none have had a rougher summer than Pat Fitzgerald. He started the summer doing his best crazy Reagan impression with ranting against the idea of a players' union while using the other side of his mouth to claim he's all for helping the student athletes. He then opened the second day of Big Ten Media Days by losing his top two recruits and informing the world of his idiotic "48 hour rule". Earlier this week he called the O'Bannon hearing, one of the most important developments in recent NCAA sports history, a "colossal waste of time". His star athlete, Venric Mark, then transferred away from the program in what would have been his senior season. These are not things a coach coming off a 5-7 season wants to be getting headlines for. If the Wildcats miss a bowl game again, this is what their last four seasons will have been: 6-7, 10-3, 5-7, 5-7. One of these things is not like the others...
Things have the potential to get even worse over in South Bend. Brian Kelly hasn't exactly had the smoothest of sailing at Notre Dame. From the incredibly poorly-handled sexual assault investigation and death of Declan Sullivan his first season to matching 8-5 records his first two years, it wasn't a strong start. The 2012 12-1 season is more remembered for the Manti Te'o hoax and absolute drubbing the Fighting Irish received in the National Championship Game than for being a success. And that was followed up with only nine wins last year, the ninth being a Pinstripe Bowl victory over Rutgers. This is at Notre Dame, where if you aren't leading the team to top 10 finishes, you're not doing your job. Having a strong 2014 is very important to Brian Kelly's future. And then yesterday came along, with the prospects of making that rebound almost all but impossible. Things will be hard enough without those four players, but the fact that they may have to vacate the last four years' worth of wins? That's not a pill the Notre Dame faithful will easily swallow. No one gets a long leash in South Bend. Kelly's may have just gotten much shorter.
But what does all this mean for the Illini? It means that it is now even more imperative that 2014 ends with a trip to a bowl game. Other than Iowa, our main local recruiting rivals are all backed into a corner. This is a legitimate chance to at least temporarily leap frog both Notre Dame and Northwestern for a season when it comes to positive media attention. When's the last time that happened? 2007? Win those six games and more recruits in Chicagoland and Indiana will be looking much more seriously at their offer lists. The private schools are wounded. It's time to go for the kill.