It is Nov. 27, 2022, and many Illini football fans can’t believe that their team is not the Big Ten West Champions. If I typed that first sentence four months ago, I would have likely needed a full psychiatric evaluation and a padded room for my own safety.
Illinois had EIGHT wins this season, and this is real life. It is the most wins for Illinois football since 2007, when The Zooker had the Illini in the Rose Bowl and finished 9-4 on the season.
It took this program 16 seasons to win 8+ games again.
It also took Zook (34-51, 18-38) getting fired, Tim Beckman (12-25, 4-20) getting fired, Bill Cubit (2-5, 5-6) getting fired and Lovie Smith (17-39, 10-33) getting fired.
This wonderful group of leaders were a combined (68-121, 34-96).
It took Bret Bielema (13-11, 9-9) 708 days to win eight games.
Let’s be clear. He wasn’t handed a Tesla. I would equivocate the roster he was handed to a certified, pre-owned Honda Accord. It could get the job done, but don’t expect any real performance.
It is well-known history by now, but the ability of Bielema to get Ryan Walters pried away from Missouri to lead his defense may be the shrewdest move that Bielema ever makes, and that’s if he lives to be 100.
Walters will win the 2022 Broyles award, if it is not stolen from him.
I’ll spare you the details in this column, but the elite Illini defense was at, or near the top of every statistical major defensive category. Points allowed, interceptions, total defense, passing defense, rushing defense.
Name the stat. They’re good at it.
Walters’ defense also has two of the top-five graded individual defenders in all of college football — DT Johnny Newton and CB Devon Witherspoon. Newton is in contention for the highest-graded defender overall.
Bielema has raised expectations so fast that people like me are seething that Illinois is not in the Big Ten Championship game on Dec. 3.
But, here we are.
As the regular season has concluded and the Illini (8-4, 5-4) are sitting in a great spot to play in a bowl game in late-December. Another sentence that seems preposterous in late summer.
Bielema talked since Day 1 about regaining the edge on Northwestern in the annual rivalry game. Well, let’s see. Illinois is now 2-0 against the Wildcats with a combined score of 88-17 in those contests.
Vegas had the Illini at 4.5 wins for 2022.
Expectations surpassed, and then some. There is no doubt that Illinois football head coach Bret Bielema is the Big Ten Coach of the Year. They shouldn't even vote on it. Send the award straight to his house.
Bielema would have been the easiest pick for national coach of the year in college football history if he could have turned around just half of the four losses.
A six-game win streak (first since 2011) and five Big Ten wins (most since six wins in 2007) would be enough to throw a parade on Green Street.
Four close losses, and the officiating was a major factor in two of those contests. Those are objective facts. The first conference game in Bloomington and the game in Ann Arbor were riddled atrocious calls/non-calls and directly affected the score and outcome.
This is what you deal with as the head coach at Illinois. The benefit of the doubt is never on your side.
Not a perfect season, by any stretch.
The Illini were in complete control of the division, sitting at 7-1 with only four games remaining. Consecutive home losses to Michigan State and Purdue put the Big Ten West in a veritable spin cycle. Bielema’s squad was heavily favored in both games.
All the Illini had to do was win one of those games and it was a virtual lock to play in Indianapolis.
The lack of the offense to generate consistent yards, points and stability for the elite Illini defense caused the Illini to lose back-to-back home games, and both were virtual sellouts.
When Bielema gets three of his own recruiting classes into the program, the head-scratching offense will be more consistent. He will get great tight ends. He always has.
The Illini football program is in GREAT hands.
Let’s go bowling!
Some projections have a New Year’s Eve tilt in NashVegas against Miznoz. That would be amazing. Two wins (including Braggin’ Rights) against Missourah in less than 10 days?