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What’s really at stake this season anyways?

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It’s a loaded question.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

I still can’t believe Lovie Smith coaches the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Like, at this point, we’ve all come to terms with it. And Lovie by no means is one of the sexiest minds — or at this point, names — in the world of football. But having grown up a lifelong Bears fan and seeing them in the Super Bowl just shy of my 10th birthday, Lovie was a god.

And he coaches my team! And I covered that team! It’s nuts!

Nonetheless, I’ve called for his firing several times. Probably after the loss to Rutgers a few years back. Certainly after 63-0. And probably before the Wisconsin upset last season.

But this year? I’m not calling for his firing one time. And none of us should, because not much is at stake.

Let’s start way back in December of last year when the Illini played in a bowl game. That was really cool, but it wasn’t the be-all, end-all for the program. It was a starting point, and it meant that if Lovie and Co. couldn’t build on it in 2020 — the season that starts with a game against little brother Illinois State — then that’s it. But, at least Lovie set the standard for what Illinois Football is and got the program going in the right direction.

Then the pandemic hit.

At first, it just halted spring ball. Then it canceled spring ball (and the spring game). Then it ruined the offseason (and recruiting). Then it forced the cancelation of the non-conference slate, including the highly anticipated ISU matchup. Then it canceled the season. Then the season was back on. Then it revised the schedule.

And now we’re here. It makes it tough to gage how we should feel, because for as much as it has been a rollercoaster for us, can you even imagine this experience for the players?

There’s two main things here.

Lovie is a Black football coach, in a time where there aren’t many major colleges with Black football coaches. Most of Illinois’ coaching staff is Black, and during this time of social unrest and fighting for justice and voting rights, Lovie Smith has been a key figure in the lives for many of the players who put on the pads as Illini every week.

My mind keeps going back to when Lovie appeared on Mike Tirico’s show.

You watch that and you’re telling me you don’t want that man to be coaching your son? Sure, Lovie hasn’t adapted to spread offenses at the college level nearly as quick as we would’ve ever hoped, but the man, in the lives of these young men, is quite the example for them to follow. Kudos to Lovie.

That’s the first main thing: Lovie is the right man for this job at Illinois right now. Josh Whitman’s hands are tied at the center of all of this — you can’t fire Lovie unless it really goes downhill.

The second main thing is he can’t fire Lovie because it’s just not fair. Fairness shouldn’t really matter I guess in terms of college football — the objective is to win, and if you’re not winning, you’re gone. There ain’t no fairness.

But, with everything that has happened the past seven months, the way goals and expectations have shifted, and the presence Lovie Smith has been, you can not fire Lovie Smith after this season. No matter what happens (unless the Illini really don’t win a game).

This is essentially a lost season, unless Illinois wins a national championship. Every scholarship player is eligible to return next season, and while I don't expect Brandon Peters to return in 2021 under the pandemic eligibility year, I do expect some other seniors, and we don’t know at all what the roster will look like. And I’m not one for making excuses for the coaching staff, but the position they’ve been put in is quite difficult, and the schedule — while not a murderer’s row — is not doing a program like Illinois any favors.

Plus, what is bowl eligibility in 2020?? There’s no minimum number of wins to go bowling! A 2-win Illinois would probably go bowling over a 5-win Toledo! So claiming ‘success’ on the fact Illinois went bowling in 2020 isn’t a good standard either.

So, where are we at?

  • Lovie is the right man for the job at Illinois right now, even if the team doesn’t show it on the field.
  • Lovie can’t get fired after this season unless things are catastrophically bad.
  • We don’t know what the roster will look like next year at all.
  • And we can’t label ‘success’ as a bowl game in 2020.

Maybe Illinois will rattle off six or seven wins in the regular season and make it to the Big Ten Championship game! That’d be amazing!

But let’s be realists. Illinois will probably win three or four, get a shot to go bowling, and finish the year like 4-6. And it’ll be over in 70 days.

At the end of the day, there’s not much at stake this season. Let’s just enjoy the fact that football’s back.