Full disclosure: I am much more interested in Illinois Fighting Illini football than I am in the basketball program.
I know, I know, I’m definitely weird. Football just resonates with me more, and as exciting as a packed State Farm Center is, I get chills thinking about a sold-out Memorial Stadium, circa 2008. I was going to pen the Throwback Thursday piece today, but for some reason revisiting the past was hard for me this week because those chills seem so far away. So, I want to talk about the future.
There’s no way to sugar-coat it: this Fighting Illini football team is in for an absolute thrashing at the hands of the Ohio State Buckeyes. Urban Meyer has an extremely talented team whose strengths prey on our weaknesses, and they’re looking to prove a point to the Playoff Committee at home.
So, as True Believers have been telling you all season, you must look beyond the box score to find meaning in our results. In that meaning, however, there’s reason to have hope for the future. Here are five reasons to believe in what the Illinois football program is doing right now.
1. The Football Hell We Were Consigned To In 2015 Is More Than Halfway Over
On November 28, 2015, the interim administration at Illinois consigned football fans to a nuclear winter type of scenario. The whole 2015 season had been a recruiting quagmire due to the Beckman investigation and an interim coach, but when Bill Cubit was hired to a 2-year full-time gig, we predicted years of ruin.
Cubit pulled in a 2016 class ranked in the 70s, right on par with some MAC teams. The 2016 schedule looked pretty unfriendly to Cubit’s anemic offense, and when most of the depth chart graduated after that season, we’d have around three years of being unfathomably bad at football, and hopefully, if we acted quickly with an athletic director in place and hired the right coach, a winning program was possible by 2022 or so.
Enter Josh Whitman, who immediately jumpstarted the repair process. Whitman surely knew the situation we were in, which is why this next point is very important: Lovie Smith wasn’t brought in to quickly build a champion as much as he was brought in to pilot us out of football hell. If you’re hopeless for the future now, imagine how you’d feel if Bill Cubit had recruited similarly for 2017 and was in his final year as head coach of the Illini, and he’s coaching a roster that’s like ours but without any impact freshmen.
What this means is that before Smith even got to Champaign, we were already going to have to eat a very long turd sandwich with football. Call it a turd party sub. It was going to be years before we could even dream of another bowl game. Lovie’s hire accelerated the timeline by at least a year, but 2016, 2017 and 2018 at the very least were all doomed.
Which brings me to my first point. Thirty-six games of football hell were prescribed to us. We’ve made it through 22. We’re more than halfway done, and by December the worst will be behind us.
2. We’ve Won Two Games: This Could Have Been Worse
I’m being completely serious here when I say that given how dismal the statistical profile of this team is, this season hasn’t been as bad as it could have been record-wise. In S&P+ rankings, we’re about as good as last year’s Rutgers team. However, we’re nowhere near as bad as our first opponent.
Ball State has been thrashed mercilessly by every MAC team they’ve played, yet the Cardinals probably deserved to win their game in Champaign. Jamal Milan’s block of their game-tying field goal attempt preserved a win for us. We would feel MUCH worse about this season had we not found a way to win that game.
Western Kentucky, on the other hand, has enjoyed modest success since losing in Champaign and seems to be on its way to a bowl game. I’d like to have a conference win, but that win is at least something we can hang our hats on.
3. The Staff Has Proven They Can Identify Talent Beyond Recruiting Rankings
If you’re jaded from watching this team and constantly reading about how good the freshmen are doing despite watching us lose every conference game, I’m not trying to make the point that our freshmen are elite or better than everyone else’s. Several of them, however, have played above their recruiting ratings to an extent that gives me confidence that this coaching staff may be better at identifying talent than Beckman’s, and they might not need to pull in the highest-rated classes to win.
Bennett Williams is the biggest example of this in my opinion. Though we are landing players with decent offer lists now, Williams had offers from only FCS teams and middling-to-bad Mountain West programs. It would be safe to call him an impact player on this defense, and I think he’s really overachieved and shown what our coaches saw in him. Louis Dorsey, Isaiah Gay and Tony Adams are others that have looked much better than I’d imagined they’d ever look right away. If this pattern keeps up, you can begin to assume that our three-stars are better than most people’s three-stars.
4. We Haven’t Been Shut Out All Year
When you have a rebuild like this, you have to look for small victories. It’s possible this streak comes to an end, but in spite of our offensive woes, we haven’t been held scoreless yet this season. It’s really demoralizing to be kept off the board. Ask fans of Kansas this year, or Rutgers last year, or even Ohio State fans in the playoff game. This is one tangible point of pride that we can still point to, and I think it has a lot to do with the last reason:
5. The Team Is Still Fighting Every Play
Seasons like this are really hard on college football players. No part of this is easy to process, whether you’re a freshman offensive lineman getting smoked repeatedly by elite defensive ends or an upperclassmen who has been recruited over, lost the starting job and knows they won’t be part of the next winning team here.
You see a lot of quit in teams with the record with which we’re projected to finish. We saw it here in Ron Zook’s last game, when the team was totally defeated against a beatable Minnesota. We saw it in 2012 when Tim Beckman couldn’t unify the locker room to buy in to his program. Last year’s Michigan State team was derailed to a 3-9 record with a highly toxic and divided locker room.
There’s no evidence of that at Illinois. They’ll head to Columbus, and they’ll probably get whipped pretty good. They will not, however, give up, and they’ll make every snap count toward something.
This is, in my opinion, the most encouraging sign.
This is the culture of a college football program building a winner. It’s a massive undertaking that still has a long ways to go, but there’s reason to believe it can be done.