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The MOST important game of Illinois’ season

Sept. 16 isn’t a must-win, but it sure would be nice.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Admittedly, it isn’t exactly the hottest take to say that the most important game on Illinois’ 2023 schedule is the one against its highest ranked ranked opponent, the Penn State Nittany Lions. It is, but maybe not for the reasons that you might think.

Of course, if the Illini beat the Toledo Rockets and Kansas Jayhawks in the first two weeks of the season, then they’re probably ranked heading into their Sept. 16 matchup against the Nittany Lions, setting the stage for a major showdown with FOX Big Noon Saturday in town.

Winning that game in those circumstances would potentially vault Illinois into the top half of the national rankings, and would make the Illini a clear frontrunner for the West Division title. But there’s more to this game than just what it could do for the program this season, and let’s dig into some of those ramifications.

College football today isn’t just about wins and losses. The conference realignment chaos of the past two offseasons have made that fact abundantly clear. As fans of the Oregon State Beavers or Stanford Cardinal are now painfully aware, there’s more at stake today than simply winning and losing. Programs that aren’t seen as desirable or competitive could be cast out of their conferences entirely.

To be clear, Illinois is in no immediate danger of ending up in the same unfortunate situation as the current Pac-4 schools. The Big Ten is now arguably the largest and strongest college athletics conference to have ever existed, and Illinois is a charter member of it. But 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.

One way to silence the critics would be to consistently pose a threat to the biggest brands in the conference, and finally shed the reputation of being a perpetual conference doormat once and for all.

The Illini have made meaningful strides in this regard, starting with the 2019 upset victory over the then-No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers. In the immediate aftermath of that game, major national media outlets like SportsCenter were plastered with images of a triumphant Lovie Smith being carried off the field. Many casual college football and NFL fans across the country said to their friends, “Oh yeah, Lovie coaches at Illinois now and has a beard. And apparently they’re decent too.”

It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

Fast forward to 2021, and the 2-5 Illini traveled to Happy Valley. Four hours and 10 minutes later, they emerged victorious over then-No. 7 Penn State in a 9-OT slugfest. Everyone from Josh Pate to College Football Live held the final score up as a “BREAKING NEWS” crawler or segment, lamenting that the Nittany Lions were effectively eliminated from the College Football Playoff. And once again, casual football fans across the country turned to each other at the bar and said, “Oh yeah, Bert is back in college now at Illinois, and I guess they’ve got some talent out there too.”

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.

Such a success wouldn’t just be an early springboard for the rest of the season, but as the program’s third victory over a top-ten team since 2019, it would help to cement Illinois’ place at the highest level of college football, and finally put to rest the old narrative of Illinois football that had been dominant from 2012-18.

There’s a lot to be playing for this season, and Illinois has a golden opportunity for another program-defining win in just under a month’s time. Let’s see if Bret and Co. can make the best of it.