Saturday could very well mark the end of an era for Illinois football.
An Illini loss likely ends a disappointing 2023 campaign. With a bowl game unlikely at 5-7, the Illini will immediately turn to constructing the 2024 roster.
An Illini victory means valuable bowl week practices for underclassmen looking to make their mark next season. It also gives a group of amazing departing seniors another bowl game. While some will sit out, the opportunity for one last major opportunity to put highlights on film could benefit the borderline NFL prospects on the roster.
The stakes are high and clear.
Either way, the results of the Northwestern game shouldn’t impact how Bret Bielema and company approach the offseason.
A low-tier bowl game earned via a six-win season in which blown games doomed the team’s ceiling doesn’t mean the team can tinker around the edges at season’s end.
It doesn’t magically create competitiveness in the changing landscape of the new Big Ten. There isn’t any glory in treading water with JuCo and “happy to be here” recruits. The honor is in winning significant battles and supercharging the roster with impact talent.
The Junior College “market inefficiency” hasn’t truly worked out. Isaiah Adams has been a day-one starter. But he has been inconsistent. Zy Crisler has been serviceable but mistake-prone. Kaleb Patterson and Prince Green haven’t made a huge dent in the secondary. Will Leys, Alex Capka-Jones, and Dez Schuster didn’t make a significant impact on the offense.
The experiment is an abject failure. Sure, a hit rate of one in five can produce legitimate contributors. But why pursue experienced veterans if they can’t contribute? Perhaps that roster space would be better dedicated to the high-upside potential guys who helped save Illinois this season.
Kaden Feagin shouldn’t be the exception on the recruiting trail. He should be the rule moving forward.
This era of trying to eventually become a lesser Wisconsin or Iowa worked out for the first eight games of the 2022 season. For the remainder of the Bielema era, the results on the field have been mediocre at best. That’s not a standard to which a program should aspire.
The growth of talent evolution in fellow former bottom-feeder Power 5 programs like Washington State, Syracuse, Oregon State, and Kansas has resulted in those programs ascending among the college football ladder.
Jedd Fisch came right from Bill Belichick’s sidelines to a rapid rebuild of the Arizona Wildcats.
Bret Bielema’s hire was not an upside hire. It was clearly a competency hire. He’s the guy who can build a Big Ten program and recruit in-state. And that’s great.
How will that work from a talent acquisition perspective when Lincoln RIley and Kalen DeBoer’s systems arrive? How will that succeed when Oregon brings unique surface appeal and Phil Knight’s money to the conference known for three yards and a cloud of dust?
It’s time to end the 1980s roster construction. It’s brought some nice wins and, sure, the program is a better one than Bielema inherited.
But that’s largely due to the maturation of Lovie Smith’s recruits.
So this offseason, the Illini must attack the portal hard. Luke Altmyer has shown the potential to be a quality starter. Kaden Feagin has demonstrated the power and versatility to be a lead back. Considering that Malik Elzy fell out of favor with the coaching staff, the WR room is full of top-1,000 recruits and athletic freaks waiting to compete with the best athletes in the nation.
Gabe Jacas was an excellent recruiting find. But his success story should be the core baseline, not a shocking diversion from reality.
It’s time to go big game hunting. Otherwise, the water under the Golden Gate Bridge is freezing cold and the plunge into obscurity is whiplash inducingly fast.