I can probably confidently say this. I am probably one of the few writers on this site who actually cares more about Illinois football than basketball. While basketball is probably the better sport in Champaign, football, for all intents and purposes, brings in the most eyeballs, provides paychecks for the athletics department, and frankly, on that first Saturday after move-in, it is the first sport that freshmen see on campus.
So when the schedule gets released and the game times get announced, my ears perk up, my thoughts start racing, and the storylines start to form.
For most of the last decade, Illinois has been stuck playing on BTN on the 11 a.m. or 2:30 slot, only to be overshadowed by some ESPN game right after College Gameday or SEC By CBS in the afternoon. Rarely, and I can probably count on one hand, does Illinois get a primetime slot. For the last few seasons, this slot has been on Friday nights, when nobody but the high school kids in Bloomington-Normal like to play football.
This season is different. The national media and the Big Ten are looking at the 8-5 2022 season, thrusting Illinois into the spotlight and making the Illini prove they belong in the limelight.
Week 1: 9/2 vs. Toledo - 6:30 p.m. BTN
Illinois kicks off Labor Day weekend with a primetime slot on BTN. Sure, there's a better game probably on TV, but there’s something special about opening up college football Saturday with a night game. This isn't really about eyes on the TV screens. It’s about the all-day tailgates in Grange Grove. It's about the welcome back to campus. It’s about bar crawling from Seniorland to KAMS, Lion and Joe’s, and then to the game under the lights at 6:30.
I wholly expect the atmosphere in Memorial Stadium to be raucous and, quite honestly, close to a sell-out. This game sets the tone for the trip to Kansas in Week 2, and the scheduled time is still TBD.
I predict a win here. Illinois 1-0.
Week 2: 9/9 @ Kansas
Move over, Bill Self. The Bielema show is coming to town.
But really, this is the game of could haves. Kansas head coach Lance Leipold was in the running for the same job at Illinois. Leipold turned around the Jayhawk program in similar fashion, turning that empty stadium into a sell-out in just under a year. Illinois and Kansas have had similar trajectories, emerging from the basement of their respective conferences, so this game should be exciting.
But that's not what I am here to talk about.
Let’s pre-build our imminent disappointment for this column's sake and give Illinois the win.
Week 3: 9/16 BIG NOON KICKOFF vs. Penn State - 11 a.m. FOX
Big Noon at 11 a.m. makes total sense.
Makes even less sense to me on the west coast since this game is actually at 9 a.m. for me.
But look at this. Penn State has major hype around its program. James Franklin needs to prove he can stand his ground, and Drew Allar, Penn State’s sophomore quarterback, should be leading them to the promised land, which is hopefully not third place in the Big Ten East.
But this is more than just another game for Illinois. It’s FOX’s flagship early game with all the eyes on Penn State, who got beat at home by Illinois in 9 overtimes just two seasons ago.
This is THE prove-it game for the season. It will be broadcast for all eyes to see, and if Illinois can squash Penn State’s over-hyped hopes, you can call it now, Memorial Stadium will be sold out for the rest of the season.
Besides, Casey Washington can add another notch to his belt and try to secure a second set of gloves into the College Football Hall of Fame.
If you see where I am going with my ambitious hype - Illinois wins.
Week 4: 9/23 vs. Florida Atlantic - TBD
TRAP GAME ALERT. Illinois is coming off a major victory over Penn State and is looking forward to a game in West Lafayette against Ryan Walters’ Purdue Boilermakers.
Bret Bielema better have this team in shape if it wants to be 4-0 in Week 5.
And here is where the beauty of the schedule kicks in.
Week 5: 9/30 @ Purdue - 2:30 PM or 6:30 p.m. Channel TBD
Purdue will have played Fresno State, Virginia Tech, Syracuse and Wisconsin. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility that 2-2 is a possibility with Walters’ supposed “best defense”.
But there is a fairly high probability that Illinois walks into Purdue at night ranked. We all know what that means, and our friends at Iowa and Ohio State know that all too well.
Illinois will bring out the Spoilermakers in Week 5. This has been a phenomenon that has tragically affected most ranked teams that play Purdue at night. Purdue somehow has another gear that teams fail to match. But the storylines for this game write themselves:
- Can Ryan Walters beat his old boss?
- Who actually coached up Illinois’ start-studded defense in 2022, Walters or Aaron Henry?
- Can Bielema take Illinois to 5-0 for the first time in 12 years?
- Will No. 15 Illinois be the team to break the Spoliermaker’s curse?
I won’t make a joke at the expense of the Orange Krush, but if you want to travel to this game as a student, this IS the travel game to go to, only an hour and a half away.
And who knows, this game may be the night game on ABC or FOX. College Gameday has a great rivalry game to be at, and the only other game I could see competing with this one is Florida vs. Kentucky. So why not?
The possibility of this happening isn’t out of reason, and Illinois has a fairly straightforward path to 5-0 before October.
If you are new here, welcome to how we hype ourselves up and deal with disappointment later. This is Illinois Football, after all.
93 days till Toledo.