Happy Sunday, Illinois Land!
Everyone can breathe a collective sigh of relief.
In through your nose, out through your mouth (repeat five times).
The time is nigh. Illinois football is about to play a game, and Brett Bielema is still the Head Ball Coach.
Life as we know it, prefer it and love it is about to regain the spotlight, enriching our lives to a degree we dare not dream.
We don’t dream it not because we don’t think about it, want it or crave it. As Illinois fans, the brass ring seems within reach, only to be lifted just beyond our grasp as we reach the top rung of the ladder.
The experience following the Illini is simultaneously thrilling and expected.
The sort of anticipation I’m feeling right now is usually reserved for late October, and not because I’m a simp for Halloween. Basketball is on the horizon at that point on the calendar.
We dare not dream the anticipation I’m feeling today because it’s only late August.
For the first time since The Zooker roamed the plains of central Illinois, I’m willing to make a statement about Illinois football — in the affirmative — before any games are played.
Illinois football is going to win the Big Ten West in 2023.
Write it down and send it in a letter.
They should be favored. They could potentially win 10 games. In fact, they will win 10 games. I’ve changed my position on this a bit from the 8-4 record I put in print a month ago.
The two long losses for the Illini will be Week 3 at home against Penn State and at Iowa on Nov. 18, the second to last game of the year.
They will beat Wisconsin in the division by virtue of a head-to-head tiebreaker.
I’m going to make several statements, in fact. I’ll even be kind enough to list them in bold with explanations underneath, to both eliminate confusion and illuminate the thought.
Here are my statements about Illinois football in 2023.
Statement #1: Illinois is not favored to win the Big Ten West because they are Illinois. The Illini must overcome historical ineptitude.
It seems like this one is obvious.
It seems that way because it is reality. Perception is reality in most cases, particularly in the tradition-rich prognosticating sport of college football, which relies heavily on tradition to make those predictions.
Illinois has never won a division since the Big Ten went to this basic format more than a decade ago (2011). Last year was the first season the program was even in the race.
We get it. Illinois hasn’t been consistently good at football since before anyone reading this column has been alive. It’s a long, uphill battle that should take years to transverse.
Wisconsin is favored to win the Big Ten West and ranked No. 16 in the initial AP Poll because they are Wisconsin.
New HBC Luke Fickell brings a barge-load of credibility with him from Cincinnati. Factor in the success at Camp Randall the last few decades and the story seemingly writes itself.
Iowa is in a similar position. Stability on the staff and consistency on the field. It seems obvious.
Statement #2: The Illini have 11 seniors on the Senior Bowl watchlist. Senior leadership aplenty.
This is a remarkable achievement for any program, let alone a historical bottom-feeder like Illinois.
The inclusion of so many Illini elicits a bunch of “yeah, buts” from fans and media alike.
It’s an easy fact to dismiss to the uneducated spectator. In reality, it means the program has not only potential for this season, but the immediate history is starting to garner attention for the current roster.
It’s counterintuitive to my first statement. Two things can be true at once.
A sub statement is the fact that the roster is not only improved since Bielema took over for Lovie Smith a few years ago, it’s been revamped to the point that depth is starting to materialize in key position groups.
The One and Only Pleas Honeywood breaks down the individual pieces better than I can.
Statement #3: Bielema is still the head coach. It is still HIS program. Departures from the staff be damned.
Bielema and his staff completed most of the voyage from the cellar to respectability last fall, substantially accelerating the timeline for the program’s sustained success.
Turn back the calendar to last August, and this rebuild looked like a handful of years...at least.
What Bielema and his staff accomplished on the field in 2022 was remarkable, in it of itself.
If the Big Ten had better officials in Bloomington and Ann Arbor, Bielema has 10 wins in Year 2 and the Big Ten West isn’t even up for debate in 2023.
Had Ryan Walters not bolted for West Lafayette to lead the Boilers, Illinois would be the odds-on favorite to win the West.
Fun Fact: Bret Bielema has the most Big Ten championships of any head coach currently in the conference.
Bielema likes to play it close to the vest, but he has been verbally bullish on the the overall performance of his team in the recent practices. That’s a great sign for Illinois football fans.
Barry Lunney, Jr. is in his second full season as the Offensive Coordinator and has an improved quarterback matriculating the field and massaging the levers.
I would expect Illinois to open it up a bit, without compromising the bread and butter ground game that Bielema is known for since he arrived on the scene.
Another sub-statement: Memorial Stadium will no longer be a half-empty, low-volume atmosphere whereby opposing teams can effortlessly make line of scrimmage adjustments and easily execute their overall audibles.
I’m not saying that Memorial Stadium will be Happy Valley West. The atmosphere should be markedly improved.
Please take my scientific poll.
What is the biggest reasons that Illinois will win the Big Ten West?
This poll is closed
Brett Bielema is the head coach.
Overall talent on the roster.
The offense will catch up to the defense in Year 2 with Lunney at the helm.
This is 2023. This is the Big Ten West. This is Illinois raising a banner.
This is Illinois football.