You have a hole in your life. For the past two weeks, something has been missing. Unfortunately, as much NFL as you try to fill it with, you're going to be missing college football for the next seven and a half months.
But out of the blue comes this preview, a crystal ball that will look into the future to show you what you'll be doing and talking about come Fall. It's the annual Illinois Fighting Illini Football Schedule Preview. Hopefully, it'll at least get you to National Signing Day.
|Date||Opponent||Location||2014 Record||F/+ Ranking||Returning Starters|
|9/5||Kent State||Champaign, IL||2-9||110th||114/87/99||--||--|
|9/12||Western Illinois||Champaign, IL||5-7 (FCS)||--||--||--||--|
|9/19||North Carolina||Chapel Hill, NC||6-7||83rd||41/112/109||10||7|
|9/26||Middle Tennessee||Champaign, IL||6-6||85th||83/85/56||--||--|
|10/10||Iowa||Iowa City, IA||7-6||66th||63/57/104||6||7|
|10/31||Penn State||State College, PA||7-6||50th||96/9/116||8||6|
|11/7||Purdue||West Lafayette, IN||3-9||81st||100/64/77||9||7|
|11/14||Ohio State||Champaign, IL||14-1||1st||2/2/22||7||7|
During any schedule that features three non-Power 5 members, the fan should generally expect to finish with a minimum of three wins. Unless one of those teams is a 2009 Boise State, any lesser outcome should be a warning flag: this team is potentially not as good as we thought we were!! (Which is generally too good anyways after a long offseason of over-thinking.)
2015 is no different for the Illini. Kent State, Western Illinois, and Middle Tennessee (featuring some tremendous mascot names: Golden Flashes, Leathernecks, and Blue Raiders) -- are not teams that should leave Champaign victorious. Those are three very winnable games. I can assure you that a loss during one of those games will immediately stoke the fires of the Fire Tim Beckman Machine to "Losing To Purdue" levels.
Playing at North Carolina is the exception. Last year, the Tarheels were a very average team in the very average ACC Coastal Division and then lost their bowl game to Rutgers. They are a team that should be doing better though. They continually compile above-average recruiting classes but due to sanctions from academic misconduct and general coaching turnover, the Tarheels have yet to convert the talent into on-field results. If they could get all that talent to work together, it's a likely loss, but if they remain the normal Tarheels, there's a decent chance for a road win.
The Illini should exit the month of September with a record no lower than 3-1, with a small possibility of 4-0. You'll look at that 4-0 and say to yourself, "This man is crazy" but what you're actually saying to yourself is, "I don't believe the Illini will ever be this good. They can't be trusted, especially after 2011. It suits me just to want mediocre results so I don't get my hopes destroyed again," to which I say, "Guys, let it go. We'll be fine. Beckman's got this," which makes you respond with a sigh.
As states, Illinois, Nebraska and Iowa are three of the top four producers of corn. Interesting.
The games against our fellow corn bros could be two of the most vital games of the season. We're not likely to be favored in either game, but a single victory could swing the entire season from mediocre to success.
Nebraska is visiting Champaign for the first time since joining the B1G. Husker fans travel exceptionally well (7 hours and 51 minutes from Memorial Stadium to Memorial Stadium) so there might be a chance that there could be more red in the stands than orange. I implore you to highly consider going to this game. Your October 3rd is booked. No weddings, no overtime, no excuses. The Illini need all the support that we can muster.
As for what Nebraska is bringing to the field, it's semi-difficult to know at this point. I'm a firm believer that the average new coach in college football will bring the team down during its first year. New coaches employ new systems, forcing the upperclassmen to relearn some of their old knowledge. They also return the 3rd fewest players from 2014. They're still one of the better programs in the B1G West so getting a win is still probably unlikely, but that doesn't mean it's impossible.
Iowa is a less threatening opponent than Nebraska, but home field advantage gives them a distinct edge. It'll be our first trip to Iowa City since 2008 when the Illini lost 10-6. The Hawkeyes are a middle of the pack B1G team, so, naturally, a loss is just a likely as any win. Winning this game would be a fantastic win for an Illini team that's been fairly bad at finding success on the road.
Homecoming and History
Illinois' homecoming in 2015 will showcase Wisconsin, last year's B1G West champion. Their 2015 version projects an eerily similar light as the Husker's: new coach, lost a great weapon on offense, but still expecting to compete for the trip to Indianapolis. They're full of well-coached talent that won't go down without a near perfect performance so any if there's any change for the win, it'll be a game for the ages, one that's not been seen since November 10th, 2007.
Next is Penn State, the 11th oldest member of the B1G -- 22 years with premier Midwest membership. With the lifted sanctions, they'll be starting to return to normal Penn State form, but there's still one or two more years before they're completely back.
Actually, I want to take a moment and look back at the Illinois-Penn State series since this is the last time we'll see them until 2018. Since Penn State joined the B1G in 1993, Illinois has won four games against them with three coming in Champaign, and yes that includes this past year. That's bad. Unfortunately, it's not the worst.
Out of curiosity I decided to count up the records against each B1G team starting with the 1993 season, excluding Nebraska and the East Coast Cousins. Lord have mercy on our souls...
- Indiana, 11 wins out of 19 games
- Northwestern, 10 of 22
- Minnesota, 7 of 17
- Iowa, 6 of 15
- Purdue, 5 of 16
- 4 wins each: Ohio State of 20, Penn State of 18, Michigan of 16
- Wisconsin, 3.5 (a tie in 95) of 18
- Michigan State, 1 of 13
To summarize: In 22 years, against 10 other teams, the Indiana Hoosiers are the only conference team we have beaten more than been beaten by!! Do not repeat this information outside of this blog! It's embarrassing and discouraging and downright depressing. Four coaches have taken us to seven bowl games (winning four) in TWENTY-TWO YEEEAARRS!!! Our record during that time?? 101-158-1, a .389 winning percentage!!
(I now walk away from my computer, taking nearly 24 hours before I can muster enough courage to return. If you need a moment to calm down too, I won't blame you.)
It makes me question why I'm a fan of the Fighting Illini. I surely can't stay for the wins, right? There's definitely not enough. But what about the quality? Not five paragraphs ago I referenced the 2007 victory over the #1 ranked Buckeyes. It's the single greatest and most improbable win of any team I've ever followed and it easily belongs in my "Top 5 Sports Moments of My Life" list. Do wins like that cover up 22 years of 5-wins-per-season football? Obviously, it does. Ohio State 07, Michigan 09, Minnesota this year -- they are moments that we still remember all these years later. Sports are full of surprises, and the Illini have an exceptional knack for finding some big ones.
So naturally we progress to look at two games that seem as easily predictable as any two conference games on the schedule. Purdue and Ohio State. The current floor of the B1G and the current champion of the college football world. Bad and phenomenal. Raisins and deep-dish. A win and a loss.
But you never can be 100% certain when you're talking about the Illini. The Boilermakers are climbing out of a massive rut. This is head coach Darrell Hazell's third year and he's sitting on a hot seat that is virtually the same as Beckman's was last year. If he doesn't get this team into competitive situations, he's likely gone. He'll surely be awaiting a game against Illinois because it's one of his better chances for a win all year. Besides Indiana.
Then Ohio State comes to Champaign. You would be scared, but you've already given up hope. And I don't blame you. It's the hardest game on the schedule hands down. I don't know what else to say. If you ever wanted a moment that could surpass 2007's OSU victory, this would be it.
Victim of Revenge
The last two weeks of the season, which will henceforth be the two craziest weeks in the sport now with the Playoff in effect, will be against two teams that we could build a streak against (along with Penn State). True fact: Illinois has no current win streak against any in-conference member.*
* - A streak is more than one win.
Jerry Kill's Gophers have been building for years to get to this season. It takes five years for a college team to wholly form itself to the head coach's image. What they've done before is only a preview. They're now almost completely players that Kill recruited to fit his scheme. Plus, Minnesota's been able to keep most of their assistant coaches year after year. Last year's upset by Illinois was their most and only embarrassing loss. They're probably not too happy about that and they'll want to exorcise some demons at that point -- these Gophers want blood.
Then comes Northwestern, our regional yearly rival who, may I remind you, is winning the series since 1993. They'll be looking for revenge after last year's finale. They had a recruiting boon coming off the 10-3 season of 2012, and that class will be reaching upperclassman status soon. This Wildcat team will be better than they were last year.
In summary: This is a tough conference schedule. The non-con isn't so bad -- like I said, the Illini should be 3-1 or even 4-0 to start the season. But in-conference is basically our three hardest opponents at home, our easiest games on the road, and two revenge-driven opponents in the last two weeks.
It's another year of Illinois football that will surely be filled with twist and turns. We'll be happy and we'll be mad, but that's the way the story goes. Hopefully, we can improve our record against conference rivals, just trying to get one small step closer to where we should be.