Let’s not beat around the bush. It’s going to be another tough season for Illinois. The team is young and will struggle again in a rebuilding year. It can be frustrating to watch at times, but luckily for us, college football provides plenty of other teams to watch. There are many fine candidates to be your side team in 2018.
Some fans may never take a ‘mistress’ and that’s great. Good for you. But some of us need to be reminded that football can in fact be exciting and fun.
Side teams aren’t forever, but here are some of the best candidates for 2018.
Kyle Husinga: If there's a blueprint for Illinois to build a program, this would be it. Matt Campbell has done an impressive job accruing talent to elevate the level of play for the Cyclones. It's a fun offensive system, and it never hurts to root for a former Illini quarterback and all time nice guy in Nathan Scheelhause. It'll be very interesting to see where this Iowa State team ends up long term, but Campbell is a fun coach and the Big 12 is ripe for the taking.
Brandon Birkhead: A midwest team surrounded by corn that is usually a basketball school but is seeing an uprise after hiring an ex-Toledo coach....oh, what could have been...
Iowa State did lose Allen Lazard and they have a brutal road schedule, but the Cyclones should have enough to get to a bowl game and keep that momentum going.
San Diego State
Thumpasaurus: This team will produce an 1800-yard rusher and I don’t even know his name. Over the last decade they’ve produced Rashaad Penny, Donnell Pumphrey and Ronnie HIllman, each of whom put up prolific rushing numbers during their Aztec careers. Boise State is the only team in the Mountain West that casuals pay attention to, but between this quiet RB factory, Jeff Tedford’s rapid resurgence at Fresno State, Mike Bobo’s bevy of talent at Colorado State and the rise of North Dakota State legend Craig Bohl out in Wyoming, there’s plenty of intrigue to be had among the challengers to the throne.
Raul Rodriguez: Mike Norvell is an offensive wizard and his teams are always fun to watch. Expect this Memphis team to light up the scoreboard and make a run for a New Year’s Six Bowl.
Kyle: Arizona, while not a championship caliber team yet, will have the most exciting player in college football running the Johnny Manziel/Texas A&M offense from a few years ago — potential Heisman candidate, Khalil Tate. Sign me up.
Brandon: This is a team that could either go 5-7 or challenge for the Pac-12 south. Love the chaos factor, and the time zone as well is beneficial to Illinois fans. I am a junkie for Pac-12 after-dark.
Brandon: Someone needs to stop Alabama’s dominance and the best chance for that is Auburn and Georgia to both be excellent.
Kyle: Please Georgia, do something about Alabama. No offense to Alabama, but parity in sports can be fun. Auburn, you too. Someone has to take down the king. These two are your best bets.
Brandon: No one dislikes Stanford, not even USC fans. The old school offense is a joy to watch. Bryce Love is also amazing and could be a Heisman contender. This is a much see Pac-12 after-dark team that at its ceiling could be a playoff contender, but will most likely be a solid 8 or 9 win team.
Also, Stanford has higher academic standards for their athletes, so we can pretend that this won’t be a problem for Illinois going forward like it has been in the past.
Kyle: That field is worth the price of admission alone. It’s also a program that, like Xavier in basketball, just plugs in new head coach after new head coach and the beat goes on. Bryan Harsin has admirably filled the shoes of a legend. Always a fun team to watch.
Brandon: They are the best G-5 team if you still want to pretend a G-5 school is ever going to make the college football playoff.
Raul: If you’re sick of the Nick Saban/Kirby Smart high floor/low risk brand of football that his infiltrated the SEC, then you have to hope Joe Moorhead can get it going in Starkville. Sabanism has turned the SEC into a boring corporate conference that is most similar to the NFL. So, I love the contrarian nature of the hire and I hope Moorhead keeps Smart and Saban up at night trying to figure out how to solve his offense.
Brandon: There is something so aesthetically pleasing about those Bruin uniforms on that natural grass field of the Rose Bowl. It makes me think all can be right in the world again.
The return of Chip Kelly to the college gameis must watch football. UCLA should at least be entertaining even if the Bruins aren’t that good.
Also west coach time. Basically I’m just telling you to pick a Pac-12 after-dark team.
Austin Jabs: Conference USA is garbage, but man North Texas is fun to watch. The old ‘score more than the other guys’ mentality. Their defense is almost non existent, so they rely on the offense. If you like seeing a high tempo offense and high scores, the Mean Green may be the team for you. Head Coach Seth Littrell, who looks like a poor mans Eric Taylor, could find himself in the conference title game this season.
Brandon: Mason Fine y’all. He is freaking amazing. And their team name is the Mean Green.
If you don’t like North Texas you’re a cop.
Brandon: We have their uniforms now, so it will be easy to pretend we are in the alternate reality where Illinois hired Dino Babers as its head coach and have an exciting vertical passing offense that makes Illinois a team no one in the Big Ten wants to play.
Kyle: The last time Miami (Ohio) were relevant on a national level, Ben Roethlisberger was setting all kinds of school, MAC, and NCAA passing records on their way to a 13-1 record and the greatest single season in school history. That could change this year if Alex Malzone reaches his prolific upside.
Chuck Martin has had an uphill battle to bring a once moribund program back to life. This could be the season it all turns around. Malzone is the key. One of the quarterbacks you've never heard of, but probably should have, Malzone brings a skill set the RedHawks fans haven't seen since that amazing year of 2003. I won't predict a national ranking or anything, but the talent level has been raised in Oxford and a bowl game should be the expectation. They'll be an entertaining team to watch, at the very least.
Kyle: Say what you want about Lane Kiffin (and there's a lot to say about Lane Kiffin), but he's gotten his career arc back on an ascending track. His stint as OC at Alabama — where he won a National Championship — led to his hire at Florida Atlantic. He's coming off an 11 win season, and his team could take him to another high profile job with a similar season, which he'll crash and burn at, but let's enjoy good Lane Kiffin for as long as it lasts.
Brandon: They are college football’s “meme” team and their success pisses off the old guard of the coaching ranks. Sign me the hell up.
Joey Freshwater for future Illinois head coach.
Kansas and Oregon State
Let us know what teams you’ll be pulling for this year other than the Fighting Illini in the comments.
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