Look at the scoreboard.
While you still want to.
You should go to Memorial Stadium on Saturday. No really, you should, despite the predicted 90 degree heat and a chance of thunderstorms. Illinois has a new scoreboard and jumbotron thingy. You should go see it now. Later on in the season, you’re probably not going to want to look at it.
On Saturday, Illinois will begin the 2013 football season against Southern Illinois. Any team with a mascot that makes you ask “so what is that?” gets extra points in my book, so I’m pretty excited that we’re hosting the Salukis (I’ll save you the trip to Wikipedia — a Saluki is a racing dog, kind of like a greyhound). You could watch the game on television — it’s on the Big Ten Network.
When the best news to come out of the entire offseason is that Illinois picked up a player who is ineligible to play this year, you know you are staring down a lean few months. Wes Lunt, formerly at Oklahoma State and their starting quarterback for much of last season, has transferred to Illinois. Because of NCAA eligibility rules regarding transfers, he will not be eligible to play for all of this season, but will have three seasons of eligibility left beginning in 2014. Yes, we are already looking to 2014 for positive things to say.
Illinois was 2–10 last year (not that you needed or, really, wanted, to be reminded of that) and there is so reason to think that this year’s team is more talented. So, barring a huge step up in execution, this season will likely be rough. So much so that the Daily Illini, not commonly known as a bastion of navel-gazing sports writing, has already run an article questioning the meaning of even playing the games.
So, what to look for Saturday? Despite the low expectations for the season overall, Illinois is a heavy favorite against Southern Illinois, as this game is in keeping with the tradition of large schools scheduling nearly guaranteed wins for their home openers. There is hope that the Illini can get far enough ahead in this game to swap quarterbacks, and see how Reilly O’Toole and true-freshman Aaron Bailey handle the offense while giving fifth-year senior Nathan Scheelhaase a rest. There could be a fair amount of quarterback controversy as the season progresses, so having some game experience spread around early is a high priority.
Do not misunderstand me. I’m an Illini fan at heart, and I desperately hope that I’m wrong about how this year is going to play out. But if we’re being honest, I will be happily surprised if Illinois wins a conference game this year. But Saturday won’t be the last time that Illinois will be favored this year, as their last non-conference game is against Miami of Ohio, which they’ll have a reasonable shot at winning as well. So you could hope for better weather and go see the scoreboard then. I’ll be covering and writing on every single game for you here at Smile Politely, and there’s no question that it would be a whole lot more fun for all of us if the Illini buck expectations and have an even moderately successful year.
Throughout the course of the year, I’ll be doing my best to give you context and analysis of both the Illini season and the state of college football at large. There’s a lot to talk about in the wider landscape, and lots of fine journalism being done on various topics (The New York Times’ series on ESPN’s pernicious influence on college football only one of several stellar examples), so we’ll try to link you to some of that too. Because, hat tip to the Daily Illini, all signs indicate that this really is going to be a season where Illinois fans are likely to step back and ask some tough questions, here and abroad. Why do we put so many resources into football? Is Tim Beckman, the highest paid public employee in Illinois, amongst the five worst coaches in college football, as Sports Illustrated claims?
Is college football exploitive, of the student athletes, the universities, or both, and who is to blame for that? With the current and emerging scientific knowledge on concussions and sub-concussive hits, player suicides and nationwide class actions against football governing bodies, what are the ethical implications of our collective enjoyment of watching these contests? Why does Tim Beckman love lasagna so much?
Is Illinois football unable to break into the top tier of the Big Ten because we have higher academic eligibility requirements than our competitors, as the seasoned scribe Loren Tate claims, and if so, what are we willing to do about that?
So, we’re here at Smile Politely for the long haul and the long view, and, of course, our own inimitable Travis McDade will keep snapping out the best Illini football photography going (that’s no joke no one does it better). If nothing else, you can always fall back on the greatest thing about college football: the social acceptability of getting day drunk. The game starts at 11:00 a.m. Cheers.
Photos courtesy of Travis McDade.