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Is the Big Ten West going to be too good for Illinois?

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The Big Ten West is quickly improving. That is bad news for the Illini.

CFP National Championship presented by AT&T - Alabama v Georgia Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The 2010s are going to end up as a lost decade for Illinois Football. 2018 is another rebuilding season, and even if a jump is made in 2019 and Illinois finishes with an above .500 regular season, that would be the only winning season in the 2010s — bowl games don’t count, and don’t even pretend they do.

When the new East and West divisions were announced in 2013, it was obvious that Illinois was put in the far weaker division. Nebraska was down, and Wisconsin was the only great program among the seven teams. It seemed there was an opportunity to rise up and take advantage of this conference alignment for the Illini, but it never came to be.

Heading into the 2020s the weak Big Ten West looks like it may not be all that bad any longer. Every program can make the case they are either in a good place and/or are moving the right direction.

The waters will be much tougher to navigate in the coming Big Ten West in the 2020s than it was in the mid-2010s for Illinois. And if Illinois wants to stop being the bottom feeder, someone else needs to take that place. Someone has to finish in last place, and if not Illinois, then who?

Let’s take a quick look at the short-term future for Illinois division rivals.

Wisconsin

There isn’t a world where I see Wisconsin falling off in the coming years. They are just so damn consistent. They’ve won 10 or more games in seven of the last nine seasons under three different head coaches. Hell, it may not even matter who is their head coach. Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen both are now ex-head coaches after leaving Wisconsin and being fired by Arkansas and Oregon State respectively.

There is just something special, and in a way beautiful, about the simplicity of the Wisconsin program. Year after year they put out a good-to-great offensive line and running game with a solid to amazing defense. Wash, rinse, repeat and the Badgers keep on winning, and with Paul Chryst in charge, they won’t fall off anytime soon. Cross them off the list.

Iowa

Kirk Ferentz has been on the hot seat a couple of times with Iowa, but he has always been able to save his job with a rebound season or two. Three years ago Iowa went 12-0 in the regular season and followed that up with two eight-win seasons.

However, Iowa always seems like a team that can go anywhere from four wins to 10 in any given season. They are a bit of a chaos team like that. Results tend to average out at around 7 or 8 wins, but in any given season they could have the bottom fall out and finish with just four or five wins.

Illinois may be able to rise above Iowa in the coming years in one of those seasons, but the Zombie Hawkeyes will return. This isn’t a team that I could see replacing Illinois as a perennial bottom feeder.

Maybe there is a world where after a few middle of the road seasons Iowa grows tired of paying Ferentz a top salary and mistakenly moves on to a new coach, but it’s more likely that Ferentz coaches Iowa until the heat death of the universe.

Nebraska

The first person in the next two years to tweet “Nebraska Back” should be banned from the Internet.

That being said, the Cornhuskers made one of the best head coaching hires of any program in the last five years. Scott Frost is perfect for Nebraska. He played there and knows the culture and what is needed to win in Lincoln. He is a young, energetic coach, and is quite advanced in offensive schemes. Taking a UCF team from 0-12 to 13-0 in two seasons was incredible.

Frost will improve Nebraska, but I’m not confident he can bring them back to true elite status — I don’t think anyone can to be honest. He may end up with a Bo Pelini ceiling of being a really good, but not great team.

Would that be enough for Huskers fans this time? Regardless, this isn’t a team that will be on the rise in the coming years, and will make life harder for Illinois.

Northwestern

The long-term future for the Wildcats is tough to predict. The Wildcats have won 10 games three times in the past six years, but have only gone 17-20 in the other three.

Pat Fitzgerald is one of the best coaches in the nation and has made a team that was widely considered to be on the Big Ten’s chopping block into a very respectable program. He has either already reached the ceiling for the program — poor man’s Stanford — or is quickly approaching it. But can this be sustained?

Fitzgerald has overachieved his recruiting rankings the last few seasons.

*Rankings from 247 Sports

2010: 13th in Big Ten

2011: 13th

2012: 10th

2013: 11th

2014: 8th

2015: 10th

2016: 10th

2017: 11th

2018: 14th

The success the ‘Cats have had with only one top-10 class in the conference this decade speaks to Fitzgerald’s ability to develop players and get the most out of his roster. He has shown flexibility to change schemes to best fit his personnel as well.

However, you could also argue that more than any other team, Northwestern has benefitted from a weak Big Ten West, and some of the overachieving can be put onto it.

Now the truth is probably somewhere in between the the extremes of Fitzgerald’s wizard powers and the weak division — leaning more towards Fitz — but if the rest of the Big Ten West does start to improve, Northwestern’s subpar recruiting may catch up to them. I would expect to start seeing some decline in record for the ‘Cats in the coming years, even though the team may not actually be any worse. But if the team does start to decline in play.....well we’ve seen what the floor for Northwestern can be.

Northwestern likely won’t return to those depths in the 2020s as long as Fitz is in charge, but at some point luck does run out and overachievers can’t keep overachieving forever.

Purdue

I love Jeff Brohm. He is a fantastic offensive mind and a hell of a coach. Purdue will keep getting better while he is there.

But let’s say he does win 7, 8 or 9 games with Purdue for the next couple of seasons. Blue bloods and schools with money to burn will start giving him strong looks at their jobs. The more success he has in the next couple of years, the more likely he will leave West Lafayette.

And then, what happens next? Brohm isn’t an elite recruiter at this point and I don’t imagine that Purdue would be left in fantastic circumstances — but a hell of a lot better than it was after Danny Hope and Darrell Hazell to be fair. Purdue could end up hiring another Hazell or Hope, and then return right back to being a bottom feeder. They could also hire another good coach, but coaching hires at programs like Purdue, Illinois and Indiana are at best 50/50.

If/when Brohm leaves, Purdue will have a lot of uncertainty in the 2020s.

Minnesota

P.J. Fleck sure is a character, but unlike Tim Beckman he doesn’t do it in an embarrassing way. In fact, Fleck has been able to use his personality and program culture to really get results on the recruiting trail for Minnesota.

Fleck pulled in a top-40 class in 2018, and the Gophers currently hold the No. 4 class in the Big Ten and a top-20 class for 2019 — beating out Illinois for a few recruits in the process.

More than talent is needed to win in the Big Ten, and I am not completely sold on P.J. Fleck’s coaching. He could end up pulling in a lot of talent much like Maryland did a few years ago, without getting good results out of it — *cough or Ron Zook *cough.

On the other hand, it could work out famously for the Gophers and Fleck turns the program into a real contender in the division. And given his shtick, top programs may not be pulling for him to leave Minnesota quickly, and he could be in the Twin Cities for a long time.


While things may be looking up right now for Illinois with two top-100 commits in the class of 2019, things are going pretty well for everyone else in the Big Ten West at the moment. Becoming a consistent bowl team and a respectable program again will be much tougher for Illinois in the coming years than you may think.

Someone has to finish in last place, and for the short-term future that looks like the Illini, and it won’t be an easy path to crawl out of the cellar unless other teams fall down.