Since the end of the Beckman era, which was deeply infused with coaching scandals and FBI involvement, into the Cubit era which virtually went unnoticed, and finally into the start of the 2016-2017 season which welcomed in Lovie Smith, Illini fans have been waiting for their football team to be great again. Not since 2011 (7-6) under the rule of Ron Zook have the Illini been able to say they’re winning.
The Illini have posted a 2-1 record through week 3 of their season. But a lot of Illini fans are sceptical. And they have every right to be so. In 2018, the Illini started 2-1. How did they finish? 4-8 (including a 63-0 blowout delivered by Iowa). In 2017, They started 2-1…they finished with a 2-10 record when it was all said and done. Need I continue?
Illinois fans, including myself, go through the same emotional rollercoaster where the high doesn’t stop until the first loss comes in. Illinois demolishes 2 small Division 1 schools that nobody has ever heard of (seriously? Who are the Akron Zips?), and we firmly believe that this is our season. Shoot, if we can beat Ball State by a field goal, we can easily beat Ohio State or any other legit team in the Big 10 (that’s a joke by the way). Once we get our first loss, which usually comes before conference play even starts, Champaign Urbana snaps back to reality. As sad as it is, we understand that this isn’t our season.
Nebraska comes to town this Friday, and so comes the start of Big 10 Play. If Illinois had pulled off the win against Eastern Michigan, there is no doubt that the Nebraska-Illinois game would be sold out. It might still. But the mood has shifted about the season, which is an argument that goes undisputed. Lovie Smith said he would have “Loved to win vs Eastern Michigan” because “Then we’d be 3-0.” Who wouldn’t like to win? But if the chemistry of the Fighting Illini shifts simply because we lost in Week 3 by a field goal, then we’re not good enough to win anyway. Our mental stability shouldn’t have to be determined by starting 3-0 vs 2-1.
ESPN gives Nebraska almost a 75% chance of winning in Week 3, which if Illinois wants any chance of a +.500 record, cannot happen. Brandon Peters is strong at QB, with 9 TD’s and 2 interceptions through 3 games. But the loss isn’t on him. It lies on the offense, who looked absolutely lost on Saturday, and the defense who couldn’t overcompensate for the offense’s mistakes. In Lovie’s 4th season, this is not something that should be happening against a team like Eastern Michigan.
If people think that Nebraska is the height of their issues, they would be incorrect. Assuming Illinois topples Nebraska soundly, they have 3 CFB Top 25 teams to face before the 2019 season is all said and done: Michigan (11), Wisconsin (13), and Iowa (18). Furthermore, We will face Michigan State, Purdue, and Northwestern, all of whom could deliver a quick blow to the Fighting Illini. So who does that leave? Minnesota, Rutgers, and Nebraska. Two of those teams (MN, Rutgers) we beat last year, but shouldn’t take anything for granted.
To even be considered for a bowl game, you have to have a .500 or better record. Illinois will have to take every game handed to them, and it definitely won’t come as easy after the loss to Eastern Michigan. We need to beat Rutgers. We need to beat Minnesota. We need to beat Nebraska. That’s a total of 5 wins. That means we will also have to beat at least 1 of the following 3 teams: MSU, Purdue, and Northwestern. If Illinois were to somehow figure out what winning is, they need to hope it’s extremely contagious, because right now, the season is shaping up to be another bust, and Lovie might be the next coach out the door.