Let's go back three years to 2011. Remember 2011? Nebraska was the new kid on the block. The Big Ten was in its first year of the "Legends" and "Leaders" division format. Ohio State was being coached on an interim basis by Luke Fickell. Penn State was in the middle of one of the biggest scandals in college football history. And opportunity was knocking on the Illini's door.
Placed in the "Leaders" division, Illinois was competing with five other teams for a chance to make it to the Big Ten Championship game. But the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions were both ineligible to reach Indianapolis as controversy and scandal ran amuck on their respective campuses. To put it mildly, they were each a hot mess. So that left Indiana, Purdue, and Wisconsin to contend with, and it was widely recognized that the Hoosiers wouldn't be any competition at all (which was true, they finished at 0-8 in the Big Ten). So then there's the Boilermakers and there's the Badgers. Neither team was being hyped in the preseason as a powerhouse program, but both were expected to become bowl eligible and have decent seasons. So here stood the Illini, with one of the best opportunities they'd ever had as a Big Ten program to win the whole damn thing, and for the first half of the season it looked like they were taking full advantage of that opportunity.
They started the season with six straight victories, including big wins over Arizona State, Northwestern, and Indiana. Confidence was at an all-time high in Champaign, and the Illini were looking down at every other team in the Leaders division when Week Seven rolled around, sitting in first place. Let me repeat that; the Illini were in first place in the Big Ten halfway through the 2011 season. I was ready to book an Indianapolis hotel room for the first week of December. And then, that amazing opportunity that was being handed to Illinois on a silver platter... disappeared. Heartbreaking road losses to Purdue and Penn State were followed by some truly dismal performances at home against Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Suddenly, the Illini dropped from the 16th best team in the nation to a team struggling to keep their head above the water. By all accounts the team had completely fallen apart. They finished the regular season with an absolutely awful performance in Minneapolis against the Gophers, and made history by being the first team ever to start a season 6-0 and finish it at 6-6. They did manage to eek out a comeback win against UCLA in their bowl game, though, to finish the year one game above .500 after they gave Ron Zook the boot. But that's not the point. No, the point here is that Illinois had one of the rarest and best chances to finish with an excellent conference record since the 21st century began, and they blew it. Big time.
Flash back to the here and now, and opportunity has come a'knocking at their door once again. Northwestern is looking horrible, sitting at 0-2 with a road game at Penn State staring them in the face to start the Big Ten season. Purdue might be just as bad. They kick off the conference year with back-to-back road games at Michigan State and then a trip here to Champaign. Iowa just lost to the (previously) winless Cyclones of Iowa State, and they're staring down a road game against the undefeated Pittsburgh. Indiana just lost to Bowling Green (who lost to Western Kentucky). There is widespread apathy and #HoosierTears in Bloomington. Minnesota's offense looks absolutely terrible right now after they lost by 23 points in a debacle at TCU. Nebraska is always a tough team to play, especially in Lincoln, but they were within minutes of losing to McNeese State at home. McNeese State. Wisconsin is clearly the best team in the division, but even they are having troubles offensively and can't get the run game going despite having one of the best backs in the country.
And so I refer back to something I said about the 2011 situation: "Illinois had one of the best opportunities they'd ever had to win their division." The same thing can be said for today's Illini squad. Now don't take this the wrong way; I'm not implying that this is a Rose Bowl team, or even a team that will win the West Division. But this is a team that can compete with every single one of their conference opponents, especially the ones that they play within the state of Illinois (Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State, Northwestern). If you're looking at those five games and chugging the Orange Kool-Aid, you might think three or four of those could be wins. Which would lead to a pretty decent bowl game. Which would be a huge building block for this team moving forward. Which would catapult the program into a much better status and draw more recruits to Champaign. I sat here and said this exact same thing about the 2011 Fighting Illini, and they failed to take advantage of that situation. Can the 2014 Fighting Illini finally do so?