It Can Always Be This Way

The people doubting whether this year’s Illinois team is for real (and I count about 30% of myself in that group) make the totally salient point that this team hasn’t done anything overly impressive. While there’s something to be said for taking care of business, in an objective sense, that’s true* – all they’ve done is beat some middling to solid teams at home and then beat Northwestern and Indiana. I’m going to seize on that criticism and issue a desperate reminder to new AD Mike Thomas that there is no reason we can’t find ourselves in this situation EVERY YEAR. (Granted, you don’t always start with NU and IU, but given the way the new conference schedule will shake out there’s a reasonable chance you can count on at least a split to start Big Ten play)

*as an Illinois fan, it’s not – this team has done things like “make halftime adjustments,” “create timely turnovers,” and “force opponents to do things they don’t want to do”….all hallmarks of solid football teams, but absent around these parts for years.

“But…that’s crazy!” you say, “We haven’t started 6-0 since 1951!” True. Let’s examine why, using just recent history. Here are the first six games of every season since 2001, when we won the Big Ten outright and went to the Sugar Bowl.

2002 (1-5, 0-2 through 6 games):

vs Missouri (L 33-20)

@ Southern Miss (L 23-20)

vs Arkansas State(W 59-7)

vs San Jose State (L 38-35)          

vs #11 Michigan (L 45-28)             

@ Minnesota (L 31-10)

I’ll just say this right now – it’ll be tough to find a worse scheduling decision over the last ten years than “You know what, let’s play in Hattiesburg, MS.” Somebody explain that to me. I understand what a home-and-home entails, I just don’t understand why a BCS conference team would ever agree to/complete one with Southern Miss. This season is notable for the start of the disaster that was the Missouri series, where the damage was not as much the season-opening loss every year as it was the sacrifice of a home game. Finally, if you’re going to lose at home to SJSU, most of this conversation is moot, anyway.

2003 (1-5, 0-2):

Missouri (L 22-15)           

Illinois State (W 49-22)

@ UCLA (L 6-3) 

California (L 31-24)          

Wisconsin (L 38-20)        

@ #13 Purdue (L 43-10)

Playing UCLA or Cal is fine, but why both? Who in their right mind would burn 3 of 4 pre-conference slots on other BCS teams? Oh, Ron Guenther would. Okay.

2004 (2-4, 0-3):

Florida A&M (W 52-13)

UCLA (L 35-17)

Western Michigan (W 30-27)     

Purdue (L 38-30)              

@ Wisconsin (L 24-7)     

@ Michigan State (L 38-25)

That’s not bad. There’s nothing wrong going home-and-home with opponents who make sense (read: not Southern Miss or MAC teams). Going 0-2 against UCLA was just a function of being bad.

2005 (2-4, 0-3):

Rutgers (W 33-30 OT)    

San Jose State (W 40-19)             

@California (L 35-20)     

Michigan State(L 61-14)

@ Iowa (L 35-7)

@ Indiana (L 36-13)

Again, if you have three games to get ready for Big Ten play, why are two of them against BCS opponents? There’s nothing wrong with the Rutgers game, but why play it when you’re already going to Berkeley? Wouldn’t a home date against Indiana State have been nice there?

2006 (2-4, 1-2):

Eastern Illinois (W 42-17)             

@ Rutgers (L 33-0)          

Syracuse (L 31-21)           

Iowa (L 24-7)     

@ Michigan State (W 23-20)       

Indiana (L 34-32)

We got the opener right, but then felt the need to play two high-risk/low-reward games with the Big East. Why? We may be the only BCS school to lose at home to Syracuse in the last 15 years, though, so that’s cool.

2007 (5-1, 3-0):

Missouri (L 40-34)           

Western Illinois (W 21-0)             

@ Syracuse (W 41-20)   

@ Indiana (W 27-14)      

Penn State (W 27-20)    

Wisconsin (W 31-26)

This was the Rose Bowl team. Should be noted they immediately dropped the next two games (@ Iowa, vs Michigan). The lesson, as always, is that it would’ve been nice to have that Mizzou loss dragging on us.

2008 (3-3, 1-2):

#6 Missouri (L 52-42)

Eastern Illinois (W 47-21)

Louisiana-Lafayette (W 20-17)   

@#12 Penn State(L 38-24)

@Michigan (W 45-20)

Minnesota (L 27-20)

That’s the correct way to fill out the remaining pre-conference schedule if you’re doing something asinine like playing a top-ten team at a neutral-but-not-really site for no real reason except to lose and make yourself feel tough. (Not pictured: a loss to Western Michigan @ Ford Field that cost us bowl eligibility. WUT?)

2009 (1-5, 0-4):

Missouri (L 37-9)

Illinois State (W 45-17)  

@ #13 Ohio State (L 30-0)

#15 Penn State (L 35-17)

Michigan State (L 24-14)               

@ Indiana (L 27-14)

Yet another way the Missouri game hurt us: if, for whatever reason, you have to shuffle the dates of your non-con games and you’re locked in for a neutral site game, you’ve got limited prep before conference starts, and one of those prep games is getting your brain beat in on national TV. We played @ #5 Cincinnati (why?) and Fresno State at home later in the season (don’t worry, we lost both!).

2010 (3-3, 1-2):

Missouri (L 23-13)

Southern Illinois (W 35-3)

Northern Illinois (W 28-22)

#2 Ohio State (L 24-13) 

@Penn State(W 33-13) 

@#13 Michigan State (L 26-6)

This is fine. They had a bye week before OSU that could’ve been better spent playing someone other than Fresno on the road (which they did in December..and lost, obviously).

Here’s a winning formula, one that I’ve harped on for years: 1 FCS team, 1 borderline punching bag, 1 comparable BCS team (optional), 1 MAC/C-USA team. That’s the non-con schedule to shoot for. It can be done pretty painlessly every year. If you think we need to man up and avoid creampuffs and in-state weaklings, get back to me when we’re making 4-5 bowls in a row. Hey, whaddya know, look at what we did this year:

2011 (6-0, 2-0):

The borderline punching bag from the Sun Belt: Arkansas State (W 33-15)

FCS team: South Dakota State (W 56-3)

Comparable BCS team (bonus! They were ranked): #22 Arizona State (W 17-14)

MAC/C-USA team: Western Michigan (W 23-20)              

Northwestern (W 38-35)             

@ Indiana (W 41-20)

Better yet, it looks like we might be figuring this out…

2012:

Western Michigan

at Arizona State

Charleston Southern

Louisiana Tech

Penn State

at Wisconsin

Obviously, we’re not going to start 6-0 every year. Having to go to Camp Randall, it looks like a pretty tall order even for next year. But why have we scheduled uphill for most of the last decade? This isn’t basketball – we don’t need a high RPI. What we need is a clear path to bowl games, and, when the schedule breaks right and we’re good, the Big Ten Championship game. Those are the only goals. Hopefully, we’re starting to act that way.

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