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Which game is Illinois’ most important this season?


NCAA Football: Illinois at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Looking at the upcoming schedule for the Fighting Illini, I have no problem finding games to be excited about. Before going any further, let me clarify that the usual standard for measuring excitement does not apply here. This is below the average college football fan’s expected titillation. This is the Illinois Standard of Schedule Excitement. Clemson fans aren’t going to understand this at all.

Without watching a single down of Illinois football, I don’t yet know what this team is yet. There’s a new offensive coordinator, a new quarterback, and all the extremely young players are getting one year older, wiser, bigger, and better. And don’t tell me that we do know how this team will turn out. This is college football: every year, a fourth of the roster leaves, the teenagers take another step towards becoming men, and when you play a game with multiple under-21-year-olds, Wild and Crazy happen on the regular. Just check the AP Poll at the beginning and the end of the season. Chaos reigns in college football.

That being said, roughly half of Illinois’ games in 2018 are winnable, or at least in some mildly bizarre way where if all the chips fell right you would not be flabbergasted. The out of conference games (vs. Kent State, vs. Western Illinois, Chicagoland-based game vs. USF) are winnable -- and they should be, by any B1G team. The conference schedule is as follows, with the games with even the slightest change of victory written in bold:

  • vs. #10 Penn State
  • -- Bye Week --
  • @ Rutgers
  • vs. Purdue
  • @ #4 Wisconsin
  • @ Maryland
  • vs. Minnesota
  • @ Nebraska
  • vs. Iowa
  • @ Northwestern

Illinois won’t win all of those bolded matchups. Like I said, to win some of these it would be a great, but not reality-redefining, day. A pick-six or trick play (likely both) would be required in some cases. This isn’t Georgia Southern over Florida. The fans in Champaign would be ecstatic to win three of these. (That is, in the August frame of mind. You can imagine how expectations would change if Lovie pulled off wins over Rutgers, Purdue, Maryland, and Minnesota. People would then get very grumpy about a loss to Nebraska and Northwestern.)

I’m searching for the most exciting game though, so I must immediately knock a few of them from their perch. The non-bold ones will go just because we’re likely unwinnable and therefore less fun and harder to fantasize about. I’m going to remove @ Rutgers and @ Maryland, too. They’re pretty darn winnable but ultimately they are cross-conference opponents that just don’t hold the same clout. (This is the first time Illinois plays Maryland EVER.) And I’m going to go ahead to nix the Northwestern game too. Don’t get me wrong, the glory from returning the LOL Hat would be fantastic and joyous for all south of Schaumburg, but for me to pick that would be slightly expected and dull.

That leaves three on the list: vs. Purdue (Homecoming), vs. Minnesota, and @ Nebraska. In reverse order, a quick analysis:

  • Nebraska is a brand new enemy. But not really one where either side has animosity yet. They’ve been lumped together with Illinois for only five years and so far the relationship has felt like that of the cheerleader and the psychology major — they’re both going to the same university but really only interact out of proximity. The Cornhuskers were a great dynasty of the past that is actively trying to return via new head coach Scott Frost, who quarterbacked the team to a National Championship in 1997.
  • Minnesota is always interesting. Well, sometimes. It seems that every year Illinois fans consider the Minnesota game to be one the Illini can win, all while Minnesota fans think the same about Illinois. It’s a cycle. (At least, that’s what I thought. Minnesota is 13-4 against the Illini over the past 22 years.) Gophers second-year head coach P.J. Fleck is an inspiring and supremely driven guy. He’s going somewhere, and he’s trying to take the Gophers with him.
  • And then there’s Purdue. If you call yourself a true Illinois fan, you know that the previous season’s success can be determined by simply looking at the current residence of the Purdue Cannon — if it resides in West Lafayette, it’s not been a good year for the Orange and Blue. Purdue second-year head coach Jeff Brohm is a smart man who seems to find success wherever he goes. And he uses lots of trick plays in a semi-sneaky, semi-sleazy way. No coach should utilize that many trick plays.

All of them are quality games, definitely winnable and if Illinois isn’t competitive up to the half, I’ll be disappointed. And you might have already noticed this but all three bullet points above had the same words in each: “new head coach”. Although Fleck and Brohm are in their second years, all three teams and Illinois are in the process of rebuilding*. These four Big Ten West teams are in a race of sorts and I want to see who is currently in what standing.

That’s ultimately why I can’t select one game as most exciting. Therefore, I do declare that the most exciting game from 2018 season is the three-headed monster of Minnesota, Purdue, and Nebraska. Or the Minnedueska.

Nebraska’s current low point is not that bad, all things considered. Yes, it’s bad for a team that won a championship within the past 21 years, but in the scope of the Illinois Standard of Record Expectations, it’s not bad at all. Even if this is the first year of their rebuild, it is likely in a better place than Illinois. That’s just the hierarchy of college football.

Minnesota and Purdue had previous coaches who also worked on rebuilds so their various states of immediate success may stem from the work of the previous coach. For instance, Brohm may be doing good things at Purdue but how much credit should be credited to the last coach, Hazell? He spent years reworking the structure and characterization of the Boilermakers. Maybe he got fired one year too early and now Brohm looks more and more like an offensive genius?

This is Lovie’s third year in Champaign. Personally, I believe that the inherited roster was so bad that the first year of his tenure should be forevermore counted as Year 0. But an unofficial two years later, is he in a better position than the other three programs?

It’s the single most important question of the year.

* - Keep in mind that some of these schools have been in various states of rebuilding for more than one coach. Illinois was rebuilding under Beckman, Purdue was rebuilding under Darrell Hazell. But I’m looking at this solely from the current coaching situation.