Smile Politely

Don’t look back?

If I took all the girls I knew when I was single
Brought ’em all together for one night
I know they’d never match my sweet imagination
Everything looks worse in black and white.

With all due respect to Paul Simon’s observations in “Kodachrome,” his paean to 35 mm film, the same doesn’t hold true for Illinois football fans. The pessimism of Illini nation (which is well earned: don’t get me wrong) is strong enough to invert Simon’s observation.

As opposed to the rosy hues generally ascribed to retrospect lenses, it’s been my experience that Illinois fans tend to look back with turd-colored glasses. For all the explanations I’ve heard for Illinois’ disappointments in the past several years, having tough schedules is not one that has come up very often. And yet, the statistics say otherwise.

In the last three years, every single non-conference team that Illinois played from the Bowl Subdivision actually went to a bowl game. Every single one. As measured by the year-end records of the non-conference teams played, Illinois’ opponents have the highest winning percentage in the Big Ten over the past ten years, higher than the foes of Ohio State and Michigan.

This year is unlikely to break that streak, as every such team Illinois played went to a bowl game last year. There’s a tendency to not pay much attention to the teams that Illinois plays after Illinois plays them, but a closer inspection is instructive. The admittedly brutal defeats by Arizona State and Louisiana Tech are a bit easier to stomach if you note that both of those teams are receiving votes in both of the national rankings polls, and there’s one loss between the two of them.

And yet when the Big Ten season starts, no one seems to notice. Illinois gets no credit from the fans for the strength of the non-conference opponents, regardless of whether Illinois won or lost those games.

Why is this?

Partially because Illinois tends to schedule Division I-AA teams at the bottom of that tier, and the noticeably lower abilities of those teams casts a pall over all the other games against the teams shooting for bowl bids. Illinois deserves to have their accomplishments somewhat overshadowed by going after the fluffiest of the available cupcake games.

Maybe the rest is self protection. Illinois fans have been through some rough years, many more than the smooth ones. Acknowledging that Illinois schedules largely quality opponents up front is to acknowledge that the beginning of the season could be rough, and that if Illinois gets to Big Ten play in good shape, expectations should be high. High expectations do not tend to end well for Illini football fans. Downplaying the quality of past opponents is a rather effective way to dampen expectations for future games.

Turning briefly to the future, Illinois travels to Madison to take on the Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday. The game starts at 2:30 p.m. and will be nationally broadcast. It’s on ABC here and in the upper-midwest, but ESPN2 is taking it to every other cable subscriber in the nation. So it’s a big stage for two teams that need a rebound. Who gets it?

This is a game that Illinois probably could win, but I honestly don’t think they will. Illinois has thus far vastly underperformed their abilities, and Camp Randall is a tough venue for pretty much every Big Ten team, Illinois sadly not being an exception.

While Wisconsin has looked fallible this year, Illinois has too far to come from the level of play thus far to be able to get there tomorrow. Wisconsin is the favorite by just a bit less than two touchdowns. If Illinois keeps it somewhere near that range, I’ll consider it a positive sign. Illinois is actually only 2–3, though that’s kind of hard to remember after the last two weeks. So there’s still time to turn it around, but Illinois is hitting a rough stretch right now in having to play at Michigan next week before the following bye week.

Wisconsin is 3–2, and was dropped from all the rankings after last week’s loss to Nebraska. At the time, it seemed like a massive upset when the Badgers lost at Oregon State in the beginning of September. Returning to the earlier theme, that loss looks a lot better in hindsight, as Oregon State has gone on to knock off UCLA (ranked 19th at the time of that game) and Arizona, and is presently undefeated and ranked in the teens in both polls. Wisconsin lost a squeaker last week at Nebraska, but it was mostly the way that they collapsed in the second half  and gave up a 17 point lead that made it tough for the Badgers.

Illinois’ finishing stretch includes easier matchups with Indiana and Minnesota, and games that are question marks against Purdue and Northwestern. Northwestern plays in the “white out” at Penn State and Purdue plays at home versus Michigan, so we may have some answers to put after those question marks after Saturday.

The recap of the Penn State game erroneously said that the only thing good to come out of that game was the debut of the awesome matte-blue helmets. That was slightly incorrect: Mason Monheim was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week. He’s a true freshman, so look for him to contribute for a long time, and he seems to fit with Tim Beckman’s goal of “building a program” by developing players early to build depth by getting multiple seasons from each player. Mr. Monheim has been doing a tremendous job, so there certainly are some things to look forward to. But don’t forget to look back.

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