I had this column all planned out.
With the college football playoff expanding to 12 teams, it always begs for some speculation on how the Illini could possibly enter the 12-team bracket and how much it would mean to host a playoff game at Memorial Stadium.
But that column came crashing down as quickly as Illini’s hopes for a perfect season.
And it stung.
It’s not like we haven’t been here before.
Since I started at Illinois a decade ago, there have been early season heartbreaks every year.
2012 - Louisana Tech 45-24
My freshman year, Block I was still packed, and the Illini still hadn’t entered the basement of the Big Ten. So full, in fact, that late-arriving students had to sit on the northwest side of the end zone, my picture below:
2013 - #19 Washington - 34-24
After a 2-10 season in 2012, Illinois had the chance to increase its win total in 2013 after starting the season 2-0. Illinois had a chance to make a statement win against the Huskies at Soldier Field. I didn’t make the trek up to Chicago, but watching the Illini come back from being down 21 made Saturday night at Red Lion a bigger zoo than it ever was. Never expected a win, but we had that fighting chance to beat a ranked team after a dismal Year 1 under Tim Beckman.
2014 - Nebraska - 45-14
I was interning in Lincoln that year and watched this game at Memorial Stadium - West. This one was personal since I had to walk back into an office full of cornhuskers on Monday morning.
2015 - UNC - 48-14
My senior year. I was bartending at the White Horse and the Illini never stood a chance. Seeing the bar packed at the game start to it slowly dwindling down back to just the regulars was a sight that was far too normal in my 4 years at school.
But at the end of the year, there was a glimmer of hope. Illinois replaced Mike Thomas with Josh Whitman and hired Chicago-land legend Lovie Smith. We all can remember what happened after.
2016 - Western Michigan - 34-10
2017 - USF - 47-23
2018 - USF - 25-19
2019 - Eastern Michigan - 34-31
2020 - Wisconsin 45-7
After all that wait during Covid to watch the Illini play in the Covid year, beating the Badgers in 2019 on Homecoming, coming back to beat Michigan State in Lansing, and all that excitement against Cal in the RedBox bowl, the Illini failed to carry any momentum into 2020. The Illini dropped this dud of a game where Wisconsin’s freshman QB Graham Mertz broke passing records.
2021 - Maryland - 20-17 and 2022 - Indiana - 23-20
These two games were eerily alike. Illinois had 95% chance to win with 4 minutes left in the game. Only for our hope to be torn apart in final drive breakdowns, terrible play calls, and stalling the game like the final whistle had blown.
If you got this far, you might be asking, why does this article exist? Why do you still have hope for the Illini? How do you still have hope for the Illini?
The answer is that I am one of the few fans that care more about football than basketball. I truly believe that Bielema is building something special here.
This group is different than that of Tim Beckman and Lovie Smith. This group has a chance to show some life this Saturday night against Virginia at home. The teams of the past folded and went on losing streaks. This team has the potential to bounce back.
— and bounce back quickly.
I don’t care about the broken hearts and the early season losses.
If I still lived in the Chicagoland area, I would bring myself and 20 others to this game.
If I was on campus, I would go to block and make that three-quarter mile trek down to Memorial Stadium to stand, yell, and cheer on the Illini.
At this point, this is THE game of the season. I’ll be wearing my orange and blue up in Seattle and hyping myself up for this game.
Everybody thinks I’m crazy for cheering on this team, and they may be right. I’ll always have that glimmer of hope that the Illini pull through and, as I always have after a decade of early season losses, I’ll hold on to that hope with clenched fists and never let go.