We're going to do a quick thinking exercise. I want you to remember back to the long ago that was early August. I know, it's hard, but bear with me here. Before the season even started, both before and after Camp Rantoul: what did you think the Illinois Fighting Illini's out-of-conference record was going to be? The general consensus here and around the Illini internetverse seemed solidly placed at 3-1, with the Washington game in Seattle all but universally accepted as a loss.
And yet this still did not change predictions of a potential six win season with a lovely winter bowl game from happening. And it shouldn't have. It still shouldn't.
The Washington Huskies struggled somewhat mightily to start the season. That's a fact. This made many an Illini fan and writer far more confident than they really should have been about how yesterday's game was going to turn out. Those folks, with all due respect, have no one to blame but themselves for thinking like that.
Yeah, Washington only beat Hawaii by one. In Hawaii. Without their starting quarterback. In their first game under a new coach. While outgaining the Rainbow Warriors by 88 yards. Then there was the seven point home opener victory against Eastern Washington, a mere FCS program. An FCS program far closer to North Dakota State than Western Illinois in terms of quality. A team that knocked off Oregon State in Corvallis to open the 2013 season. These struggles made people cocky and what went from an expected loss somehow turned into an expected upset when it never should have.
Washington is a damn fine football program in a very strong conference. Did we all forget they went 9-4 last year with three of those losses being Oregon, Stanford, and UCLA? Two of their wins were stompings of Boise State and BYU. Yeah, they lost Bishop Sankey and Austin Seferian-Jenkins to the NFL. They lost Steve Sarkisian to USC. But they have a talented and deep enough roster to replace such talent losses and went out and grabbed Chris Petersen and his 92-13 record to come in as head coach. The Huskies will be 4-0 when Stanford rolls into town on September 27th. They have a very high chance of hosting Gameday that week. This is a good program that is going to win at least eight games this year.
The Illini are not there yet. It would be great if we were, but we just aren't. And that's okay. To expect a 4-8 team to magically invert their record is pretty silly. We've seen it happen in Champaign before, but it was always an outlier, not a sustainable change. And while those outlier seasons are fun and all, the following years in the wasteland suck. We're inching out of that wasteland right now. It's not pretty. It's not pleasant. But it's progress. The Huskies outgained the Illini 615 yards to 327 yards last year. The 34-24 score looks a great deal nicer than this year's 44-19 bludgeoning, but that game was not closer. But the Illini were only outgained by 113 yards yesterday, for a difference of 0.4 yards per play. The two defensive touchdowns for Washington were the backbreakers.
So now we move on to a 1-1 Texas State team, exactly where we thought we would be on September 14th. Win that game, and we're the 3-1 team entering conference play that we all expected to be. But the thing none of us predicted was how weak the Big Ten would be this year. Yeah, the road conference schedule is still rough. It's never easy winning at Nebraska, Wisconsin, or Ohio State. But take another look at the rest of that schedule and tell me that you're 100% sure Illinois doesn't make it to six wins. We still get Purdue at home. Minnesota was outgained by Middle Tennessee State, winning because of a three interception day. They played a real team yesterday and were slapped down. Iowa managed to sneak by both Northern Iowa and Ball State and home by a combined 12 points only to finally earn the loss they've deserved all season to 0-2 Iowa State at home yesterday. Northwestern is currently a smoldering heap. The wins are out there to be had, it's just a matter of actually getting them.