Smile Politely

Swing State

Illinois hits the road once again on Saturday, travelling to Ann Arbor to take on the Michigan Wolverines. With national politics on the forefront of late, I suppose I just see everything in political terms. Illinois traveled to Wisconsin last week, a true battleground state. And truthfully, through a good portion of the game, they looked like a candidate with a legitimate shot of winning that contest. Alas, the October Surprise came in the stunning revelation that, unlike hockey, you don’t stop after three periods.

Or maybe it’s the coverage map for this week’s game which, like last, is being broadcast nationally.

Most of the Blue States are receiving it on ABC. The Red States are receiving it on ESPN. Gametime is 2:30.

Politically, though, Michigan isn’t a swing state. Or it isn’t anymore. Nate Silver, the inimitable polling and statistics expert from the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog currently predicts a 93.7% chance that Barack Obama will win Michigan, despite Mittens Romney’s entreaties that all the trees there are just the right height.

The real swing state here is Illinois. Illinois’ football team specifically.

Having failed to win a Big Ten game, and having failed to look competitive throughout any of their losses, it’s hard to not see Illinois as a team on the precipice, and harder not to see the Michigan trip as the tipping point. That’s not purely the case: there’s a fair amount of football left to play. But time is winding down on the schedule, especially given the upcoming games. While a win at Ohio State would be an extra sparkly bright spot on the year, it isn’t going to happen. The game at Michigan is probably the last game where Illinois has a non-trivial chance of winning a game that will actually turn heads.

Note that “non-trivial” does not mean “good.” Illinois is the underdog to the tune of over three touchdowns. Michigan just snuck back into one of the polls. That doesn’t mean that Michigan will be the biggest test for Illinois thus far: Louisiana Tech is actually ranked higher, and Arizona State is receiving votes in both polls, putting them statistically close to Michigan’s 25th ranking in the AP list.

But Michigan has looked like a team that is finding its footing, and has lost only two games. Those losses came to Notre Dame (currently undefeated, ranked 7th). Their other loss was to Alabama. These are what people refer to as “quality losses,” even though Michigan’s partisans’ claims that they would be competitive with Alabama who were shattered in Week 1.

Truly, though, there are few bright spots for Illinois fans at the moment. It’s hard to admit that your team’s play thus far has been so unimpressive that your matchups could be considered trap games. But that is where we are. Michigan host Michigan State next week, and Illinois fans’ best hope may be that Michigan is looking forward.

If Illinois matches oddsmakers’ expectations and never contends in this game, I’d suggest keeping your hopes up and watching the game with an eye towards the future. Jonathan Brown, playing with some injury limitations, has been very solid, and I’d predict a good game for him. Michael Buchanan, another defensive standout with NFL caliber talent, continues to excel, and they both have a considerable amount of experience facing Denard Robinson, Michigan’s wily option QB. But they are both certain to be gone next year. So pay extra attention to true-freshmen V’Angelo Bentley, who has been doing some nice things on special teams, and Mason Monheim, who has played exceeding well at linebacker, a position notoriously difficult for underclassmen.

Since we’re in the midst of the political prognostication season, I’ll make a prediction  Supo Sanni returns for this game after missing last week and beefs up a secondary that is able to limit Denard Robinson’s often wobbly passing. Forced to run, Michael Buchanan and Mason Monheim both record admirable tackling numbers. Nathan Scheelhaase, having spent all week studying how the triple-option attack of Air Force put up 25 points, and with increasing mobility from a now-fully healed ankle, shows that Illinois has more offensive spark than previously thought. Ultimately, it’s not enough, and a late defensive miscue allows Michigan to add an extra touchdown, for a Wolverine win in the 20 point range. Illinois looks improved from last week, but it’s not enough.

Next week is a bye, so there will be time to regroup going into homecoming, and there’s some winnable games left on the slate. Illinois is moving in the right direction, but being a team in a state of flux, a swing state, six games through the schedule is going to make for a long campaign.

Don’t boo. Vote.

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