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Illinois Football's Path to a Bowl Game in 2014

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Is this the year? No - not the Rose Bowl, but a bowl. Okay, so when getting to Detroit in late December is your goal, you probably already realize seeing Erin Andrews on the sidelines and hearing Brent Musburger drool over your girlfriend won’t be happening.

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

I'll try to be objective rather than subjective. I'm a die-hard Illini fan though, so sometimes I start drinking the orange kool-aid and start handing out extensions like Ron Guenther.

THE GAMES:

Youngstown State:
I really only think of one person when it comes to Youngstown State and that, of course, is Jim Tressel and the success he had there before moving on to Ohio State. We all know what happened there with the scandal - and now, lo and behold, he is now the president of Youngstown State. This should be a cakewalk, and really a game where I hope everybody will get to play. Two former Zook staffers in Head Coach Eric Wolford and DL Coach Tom Sims (this seems to be a theme with the non-conference schedule this year). As a side note Ed O'Neill (aka Al Bundy) played football here, so let's hope the running back this year is selling women's shoes by the end of the day instead of scoring four touchdowns. W

Western Kentucky:
Seventh year playing with the big boys after the jump from 1-AA for these guys. (Still can't bring myself to say FCS). I expect this game could be a shootout even with Bobby Petrino leaving for Louisville. Three former Illini coaches In Head Coach Jeff Brohm (Zook has a head coaching tree??), Mike Cassity from the Turner years, and Greg Nord. We should win this, but it could be closer than some are expecting. W

Washington:
I don't really like anything about this game even with a new coaching regime in Seattle. I was at this game in Chicago last year and the game really was not as close as the final score indicated. Some of the key players have moved on, but plenty of talent remains. Steve Sarkisian recruited very well and I feel was much underappreciated by their fan base. L

Texas State:
Mike Schultz returns to the scene of the crime of his failed 2009 offense. What a terrible year for Juice & Rejus to end their career. Hopefully for our sake Schultz runs the same offense out there and makes Tim Banks look like Buddy Ryan. We should win this one handily and, if not, we'll probably know our fate for the rest of the year. W

Nebraska:
Wow this road schedule is not very nice at all. This is a night game in Lincoln and I'm sure some of the fans have the Winnebagos already full of Runza sandwiches and corn fritters for the tailgate. I respect their fans though as they travel well and from all accounts even cheer when a visiting player makes a good play. It could get ugly early and I'll leave it at that. L


Purdue:
This, by far, should be our easiest conference game of the year. I'm hoping at this point, this should be Win #4. Purdue 2014 seems eerily similar to Illinois 2013, so I'm sure this is the game they have marked to end their long conference losing streak. I find it crazy to think we haven't beaten Purdue in consecutive years since 01-02. This should be a win and should be a win moving forward if the Illini are to progress as a program. W

Wisconsin:
Geez, who made this road schedule? Ron Guenther? This feels like Richard Phillips trapped in a lifeboat for five days in terms of hopes of winning these road games. Maybe Wes Lunt will be our Navy Seal. I always find it interesting programs are trying to find a "model" to build from the ground up and Wisconsin is always used. I agree to a point, but sometimes it's just luck how programs are built and sometimes it's just having the right people. I will give Barry Alvarez some credit, but he was only five games over .500 in Big Ten play during his tenure. More on this in a future article! L

Minnesota:
Probably the game of the year in terms of importance. I think we will know if Illinois is bowling or watching from home again this year after this game. Definitely winnable and Illinois has a bye the week before. Two weeks to prepare for a team who last year seemed to have the luck of those Northwestern teams of the last five years. This will be the part of the season where the wind starts to play havoc with the deep ball in Champaign. The hope is that Lunt and the receivers have established themselves by this point in the season where running the ball is an option (unlike the last two years). W

Ohio State:
I'm sure the Juice 2007 game will be on television 13 times the week leading up to this game and I will watch it at least twice. I'll give bonus points to anybody who can name the 4 receivers who caught TD's in that game. I always love the angle of how Illinois always plays Ohio State tough-(Ohio State leads 65-30-4 all-time). Ouch. L

Iowa:
I can't believe we haven't played these guys since 2008. As the season keeps getting closer and closer, the more this seems like a loss. They lose a decent amount on both sides, but as mentioned above, it will be mid-November in the windiest stadium in the Big Ten. Physicality could and probably will win out. L

Penn State:
New regime and probably the next great NFL QB in Christian Hackenberg, but I think Illinois can win this pretty easily. I think James Franklin can succeed here, but Penn State is never going to be Penn State again and Joe Pa is not to blame, it's simply due to their division. W

Northwestern:
Does anybody remember that guy in high school or college who raises his hand to answer every question? That is Pat Fitzgerald. I wonder what the other conference coaches think of him. He has done well, I'll give him credit for that, but he just rubs everything in your face and that fist pump drives me up a wall. Illinois just has terrible luck against these guys and I don't see it changing this year even though Northwestern is not going to a bowl, so all week in the Chicago media Fitzgerald will be throwing out dumb clichés like "this is our bowl" and "team to the south." Dumb. L

So there it is. I say 6-6 and a trip to Detroit for the Little Caesars Bowl against let's say Syracuse from the ACC. Echoing the non-conference schedule, their head coach, Scott Shafer, is a former Illini coach under Ron Turner and their RB coach, DeAndre Smith, was a part of the final Zook years. Maybe it's just a coincidence we are facing all of these former coaches this year or maybe it actually portrays stability and longevity of our coaching staffs are not great at all and reflects the last 20 years of the program as a whole.