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This isn’t going to be easy

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There’s a lot of work to be done.

NCAA Football: Texas-San Antonio at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Remember turning 16 and finally getting that first job? Maybe it was as a dishwasher, maybe a cashier, or maybe a caddie. Remember receiving that first paycheck? Maybe it was $100, or maybe it was $400; regardless, it felt like an amount that changed how you viewed the future.

“This is simple!” you told yourself. “If I make this every week, I can buy anything! I’m set, this whole work stuff is easy.”

And then your naïve plan shatters — quickly. Reality is expensive and you don’t make nearly enough money to cover everything you hoped for. A full tank of gas is $60 and video games aren’t free. The first-job money isn’t providing what you expected and this whole work stuff ends up looking like a long, difficult process.

Not a great feeling, right? Reflecting on a naïve plan built from wishful thinking and sustained by hope sucks.

“How could I have thought this would work? What was I thinking?”

You tell yourself it can’t happen again but aren’t very sure it won’t. The illusion that age and experience were going to make a difference for the Illini season turned out to be naïve, wishful thinking, just like your plans for that first job.

The season is only three games young and plenty more chances exist to turn the season around. But through a quarter of the season, Bielema’s bid for every super senior to return looks and feels more like an effort to avoid 2-10 than an attempt to go bowling. Instead of planning December trips, the Illinois fanbase is lamenting another season of naivety — “I really thought we would be solid with all the super seniors. I feel so stupid.”

We’re a hope-springs-eternal bunch, and maybe I read into the hype too much. Could be that I chose to believe against rational thought. I was convinced that 20-something 23-year- olds would at least make us a solid Big Ten team.

College football doesn’t allow fans to build the same relationships with players that the pros do. The players get four years and they’re out. There are no Yadier Molinas or Brian Urlachers or Patrick Kanes in college. These super seniors are as close as we get. Jake Hansen has been a part of our Saturdays every fall weekend since I was a freshman six years ago. Many of these guys will finish as the longest tenured Illini in history. The relationship with these players are special. I was so sure of my guys that I planned to track the individual performances of every super senior, paying close attention to their contributions towards a fun and successful season.

The closeups haven’t been pretty. Hansen isn’t having the same impact. Perhaps he just clicked on a different frequency with Lovie, or Jake’s style and Lovie’s scheme complemented each other in a way Bielema/Walters’ doesn’t. I don’t have the answer; Jake had a forced fumble, but the coverage, tackling and open gaps are just inexcusable.

Owen Carney, Isaiah Gay, Roderick Perry, Jamal Woods. A super-senior-stacked defensive line exerted minimal pressure and contributed to a debacle of a defensive performance.

Tony Adams was carved time and again by a passing offensive that amassed 423 yards.

On the reverse side of the ball, maybe the most painful pill has been the offensive line, almost guaranteed to be a strength of the team, performing average or worse. Virginia threw for more than 400 yards and still out-rushed the Illini.

Keying on super seniors, players I’ve known forever, players who have grown with me, I bought into the super senior hype. Now, I just have apathy towards the idea. What was once a pillar of hope this season is now a mental struggle weighing win today vs. play for tomorrow. If the Illini find themselves in a similar position, at home, against Maryland as they did today, speculation will only grow.

If Bielema doesn’t have the horses to pull a competitive team, what is the purpose of playing the super seniors? If you are getting routinely beaten with the super seniors, is there more value in seeing your recruits? Or at least guys who will be here next year?

Virginia handed Illinois its first “big” loss of the season, however there is no excuse for a team as experienced as the Illini to get blown out following an upset loss at home. Back-to-back bad losses for this team feels different than Lovie’s rebuilding teams. I’d hate to exaggerate one loss, but it does feel like an illusion I desperately clung to has broke. Now I’m picking up the pieces of a melancholy reality.

The super seniors likely aren’t going to save these season and the talent Lovie assembled over the last few years isn’t going to either. Bielema is going to lead another massive Illinois rebuild, possibly starting today instead of next season. Staring that down is just depressing.

We’ve gone through so much that the hope of experience beating talent was an illusion we tried our best to hold on to.

“This is simple!” We thought. “Use the COVID Waiver to bring back the entire team! If we get a 6 year back every week we can win on strength and experience! Bielema got an easy path to 6 wins handed to him!”

Except, the experience doesn’t outweigh the talent. There are more holes than you thought, The players aren’t as impactful as you thought. There is far more work to be done. And now, getting back to a bowl game seems like a long, difficult process.