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Illinois still lags far behind the college football blue bloods

The Illini didn’t fare well in the most important matchup of their season

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 16 Penn State at Illinois Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Way back in August, I wrote an article laying out my reasons for believing that Illinois’ game against the Penn State Nittany Lions was the most important game of the 2023 season. The crux of my argument was as follows.

Beating a bunch of peer-school Big Ten West rivals and winning 8 games again en route to another Florida bowl game would be an outstanding outcome for this season. But essentially dashing Penn State’s last hopes to earn a four-team CFP berth in front of a national TV audience would be a huge victory in and of itself due to the media frenzy it would cause, regardless of which wins or losses come before and after.

As it turned out, we beat three peer-school Big Ten rivals en route to staying home for the holidays. But that’s not really worth focusing on here. I still firmly believe that Illinois’ 30-13 loss to Penn State was the most consequential game that the Illini played this season. And that would be the case regardless of whether or not Illinois had made an extra field goal against Northwestern to secure a berth in the Motor City Bowl (to play BOWLING GREEN!).

Much like the brutal realization that the Florida State Seminoles had this past weekend, it’s not enough to simply win a certain number of games. Programs need to prove their worth against the best of the best to be afforded respect in the eyes of college football’s power brokers.

Illinois needed to make a statement against Penn State this season, one that said the Illini were ready to at least compete with the top programs in the Big Ten. Replicating the near-win in Ann Arbor in 2022 would’ve sufficed, since it would’ve shown that we can play an entertaining brand of football that could keep the entire nation’s eyeballs glued to their televisions for four quarters. Instead of moving forward, Illini football may have taken a step toward permanent irrelevance.

The reason? I laid it out in my August article and I stand by it today.

Illinois fans would be naïve to assume that the bigger fish in the conference would never look at us and ask if we’re really worth the $60 million annual revenue share that every Big Ten school receives.

You can call me a conspiracy theorist if you want, but in this ever-evolving college football landscape, the Illini need to be doing everything they can to prove that they belong at the highest echelons of the game. If the Illini can’t be respected by the blue bloods, then the Michigans, Ohio States, and Penn States of the world will eventually find ways to put Illinois’ media rights earnings to better use.

There are at least two ways that they can do this.

In the most direct manner, the biggest football schools in the Big Ten could simply try pushing Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, etc. out of the conference by force. As we’ve seen time and again in the past decade, even a century of precedent can be cast aside in a single offseason. This approach would likely trigger some kind of breach of contract lawsuit from the schools that are cast out, but after a few years and presumably a large monetary settlement, the Big Ten could continue on its way without the uncompetitive schools.

The other (more likely) approach would be something akin to the fate that befell the Pac-12. In this situation, the biggest 40 or so brands in college football would decide to ditch the NCAA altogether and play under the banner of an expanded College Football Playoff or some other umbrella entity. The less profitable schools would be left behind in the NCAA and in their original conferences, which would be shells of themselves without their most profitable programs.

To be fair, Illinois isn’t alone in this predicament. The Iowa Hawkeyes won 10 games this season, but were utterly uncompetitive against Penn State during the regular season and against the Michigan Wolverines in the Big Ten Championship. Still, this doesn’t help the Illini. It only means that nationally mediocre programs with bigger (i.e. more profitable) fanbases would be chosen as the doormat teams of the new highest tier of college football. The Nebraska Cornhuskers and Wisconsin Badgers come to mind here.

The stakes are high, but Illinois’ fate is far from sealed. If anyone can turn the Illini into a competitive program over the next few seasons, it’s Bret Bielema. And even if he can’t, it’s also possible that college football somehow solidifies after this latest round of realignment, which leaves the Big Ten and SEC as the two most prominent conferences, with the ACC and Big 12 trailing close behind. That said, it would be unwise to bet against a lack of change in the modern college football world, and the best way forward for Illinois is to simply play solid football, no matter the opponent.