Bowl games have been pretty few and far between in the recent history of Illinois Football. The last time the Illini attended bowl games in consecutive years was when the 2010 and 2011 teams made it, both qualifying with the bare minimum record of 6-6 (both would go on to win their final showdown).
But stretching out before that time (and after) is a desert, far-reaching and barren, with very few bowl games breaking up the long line between sky and burnt earth. Your eyes see for miles, back to 1992 when the known desert ends. Over there’s the time when they played in the Rose Bowl; ‘member Juice Williams? And over there, that’s the Sugar Bowl. Yeah, for real. Back in 2001, Illinois was good, man. Seems so far away now.
It surely was. Eighteen years ago, No.7 Illinois was set to play against No. 12 LSU in the Nokia Sugar Bowl.
Illinois, wearing the white face mask and the two-tone orange-and-white collars, was 10-1, having only lost to Michigan in a late September game that was seemingly marred by bad ref calls. The coach of the Illini, one Ron Turner, had overseen them go from one end of the spectrum to the other. Four years prior, the team had lost every single game of the season, going 0-11 and being possibly the worst team in school history. And now they played in a bowl game reserved for the likes of Florida, Ohio State, Miami, and Georgia. Not Illinois.
According to Sports-Reference.com, the 2001 Fighting Illini were given a Simple Rating System (SRS) score of 12.71, the highest score of any Illini team in the last 25 years.
(SRS is a rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule. The rating is denominated in points above/below average, where zero is average, so the higher the number the better the team is and vice-versa. In case you are wondering, the 1999 Micron PC Bowl team is the second-best team in that time-frame, scoring 11.40. If you want to read more about that bowl game, you can check out my man Austin Jabs’ write-up from last week.)
But the 1997 team that went 0-11? The team that is likely the worst team in school history? Its SRS score was -12.97 and that is the—... That is the worst team in school history, at least according to Sports-Reference.com.
To go from the very depths of the proverbial barrel and then, four short years later, using December to prepare for a New Year’s Six bowl game is phenomenal and truly fantastic. It’s one of those coaching turnarounds that Illini fans of 2019 wish for. When other teams get corrected so quickly, we wonder when it will be our turn. Maybe it already happened for us, back in 2001 — the fates have already granted a wish to the U of I and we were just unlucky enough to be born at the wrong time. But maybe, it might not require magic.
And at this point, I’ll remind you: This is college football, the most fickle, dynamic, and unstable of them all.* The kids come and go. Out the door in the span of a few years and the teams are off to the races again. (And coaches aren’t much different.) But it’s also what makes the sport so interesting. You never can truly tell what’s going to happen next. You can lament the player that just got drafted but before you can dry your eyes, the kid-you’ve-never-heard of is scoring on repeat. College football’s unit of trade is the kid that is becoming a man. From freshman to redshirt senior, he transforms into an entirely different human being. It makes it extremely hard to predict with any accuracy.
So how far away is Illinois right now? The answer: You don’t know. I don’t know. ESPN doesn’t know. But it could be 2023, or even 2022. Let’s look back to that 2001 team.
The Illini were led by quarterback Kurt Kittner, who could throw deep passes better than anyone ever has in Champaign. To this day, he still holds the school record for career touchdowns with 66. His record for career passing yards was only bested by Nathan Scheelhaause by 108 yards. No one in Champaign knew that Kittner would become the record-holder and the kid to grace the cover of ESPN Magazine. Or to lead us to a Sugar Bowl. Or to be talked about as a Heisman candidate. Kittner landed at Illinois right after the 0-11 season. Superman, right when he was needed most.
And that’s not really even talking about the other players on the team. Offensive Lineman David Diehl would go on to play 10 years for the two-time Super Bowl-winning Giants. Brandon Lloyd was about as good as any Illini receiver has ever been. This was a very good team — Kittner didn’t do it by himself. Few of them were on campus at Christmas of 1997.
By 2022, we may be talking about names that have a completely different meaning:
Marquez Beason is the best DB in the country.
Kyron Cumby shouldn’t have developed moves like that.
And don’t forget about our D-Line — Quinton McCoy and Moses Okpala will only be here until the end of the year so we better appreciate them.
This is 100%, absolutely not guaranteed. Sorry. But, again, this is college football. The skies ahead might be filled with storm clouds now but it doesn’t take much for them to return to blue skies and orange sunsets.
And look at that, I barely wrote about the actual bowl game at all. Here, let’s review in a small section of note-like paragraphs.
- The art above is created by me. I’ve done many pieces about sports, most of them very focused on the world of college football. But in all that time, I’ve had very little opportunity to make something Illini-focused. So now that I’m writing for TCR again, I’ll be adding a few every once in a while. Hope you enjoy.
- LSU was coached by, get this, Nick Saban. The Nick Saban that would go on to become one of the best coaches of all-time in all sport. He’s right here, at the end of his second season in Baton Rouge. Everyone knew he was great even then, but it wasn’t known to what degree.
- At offensive coordinator was Jimbo Fisher, the eventual coach of 2013 national champion Florida State and the present-day Texas A&M.
- On the field, LSU was loaded with future NFL talent: corner Ryan Clark, RB/WR Devery Henderson, WRs Michael Clayton and second-round-pick Josh Reed, DE Jarvis Green (who would win Super Bowls as part of that early Patriots dynasty), and even a freshman Joseph Addai getting some playing time.
- Those last three points become reminders that we don’t know the future. The stories of players and coaches are yet to be completed. It’s why we watch and another reason why we invest hope in these teams.
- As for the actual game, it wasn’t much of one. Illinois quickly fell behind to LSU and trailed going into halftime, 34-7.
- LSU controlled the clock, having offensive possession for 39 minutes and 16 seconds.
- Kittner threw four touchdowns and one interception.
- Wide Receiver Brandon Lloyd had one passing touchdown — a 40-yard bomb — that happened late in the 4th quarter. Don’t tell me the Illini weren’t trying to make some kind of comeback, desperate though it may have been.
- But mostly though, this game was decided by Illinois’ defense not being able to keep up with LSU’s speed. QB Rohan Davey threw for 444 yards and the receivers were continually behind the Illini secondary.
Also, don’t let me and my crummy words be enough for you. The 2001 Sugar Bowl is a thing of nostalgic beauty. We have the internet. We have YouTube. Click these blue words. Spend a Thursday night watching this with the lights down and wrapped up in a blanket. This is a home video you just found in the basement storage. The comfort and the joy of the past is strong here, despite the state our country was in at that time. Sports became a release for our mourning back then, and that still holds true today. Mike Tirico had hair.
If you have any memories of this game, good or bad, I would really love to hear them. Please put them in the comments below, or hit me up on Twitter: @ARench89.