By Dave Wischnowsky–
Well, I’m back from the Texas Bowl and you can color me orange.
Because, with the Fighting Illini’s unexpected 38-14 dismantling of Baylor, University of Illinois football fans finally can enjoy a truly Happy New Year for the first time in forever.
OK, so may be it’s only felt like an eternity since the Illini last posted a postseason victory way back when Kurt Kittner & Co. whipped Virginia 63-21 in the 1999 MicronPC.com Bowl. But it’s practically been one since 1991-92 – the last time that Illinois qualified for bowl games in consecutive years.
And now the trick in 2011 is for the Illini to turn that one again – no matter how tricky it’s proved to be in the past.
It’s safe to say that the primary hallmark of any legitimate college football program is playing in bowl games on a consistent basis. Illinois does not. And, for years, I’ve said that I won’t be fully back on board with the Illini football operation until it reaches back-to-back bowl games for the first time since MC Hammer was making hits.
I thought it would happen back in 2000 after the MicronPC.com Bowl. (But Illinois finished 5-6.)
Then, I thought it would happen in 2002 after the Sugar Bowl. (But Illinois finished 5-6.)
And then, I thought it would happen in 2008 after the Rose Bowl. (But Illinois finished 5-7.)
Now, it should happen in 2011 after the Texas Bowl. (But … well, you know the drill.)
After his team’s rollicking Texas Bowl win, Illini head coach Ron Zook said, “One of the things I said on Aug. 4 at our very first meeting was that we were good enough to win every game on our schedule. I think the seniors were the only ones that really felt that way.”
Depending on how many of Illinois’ three junior standouts – Mikel Leshoure, Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson – return for 2011, most everyone affiliated with Illinois football should feel that way this year.
Because, not only do the Illini play eight home games in ’11, they don’t leave the states of Illinois or Indiana until the ninth week of the season. And of their four road games, three feature Big Ten cellar dwellers, Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota, while the other is at Penn State, a place where Illinois won handily this season.
To boot, among Illinois’ conference opponents, both Indiana and Minnesota will be featuring new coaches, while Michigan might be. The health status of Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa is a question mark. And, if Ohio State does have star QB Terrelle Pryor, he’ll still be rusty when the Buckeyes travel to Champaign just one week after his five-game suspension is lifted.
Even if Leshoure, Liuget and Wilson do go pro, with talented coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning still calling most of the shots next season along with talented quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, 2011 looks to be bright for the Illini.
But, we’ll see …
Below are Illinois’ 2011 opponents, along with their 2010 records and my (very early) projections on next season’s Illini wins and losses. Feel free to share your own predictions for the Illini 2011 record:
Sept. 3 vs. Arkansas State (4-8): WIN
Sept. 10 vs. South Dakota State (5-6): WIN
Sept. 17 vs. Arizona State (6-6): WIN
Sept. 24 vs. Western Michigan (6-6): WIN
Oct. 1 vs. Northwestern (7-5*): WIN
Oct. 8 at Indiana (5-7): WIN
Oct. 15 vs. Ohio State (11-1*): LOSS
Oct. 22 at Purdue (4-8): WIN
Oct. 29 at Penn State (7-5*): LOSS
Nov. 12 vs. Michigan (7-5*): WIN
Nov. 19 vs. Wisconsin (11-1*): LOSS
Nov. 26 at Minnesota (3-9): WIN
2011 Illinois Record: 9-3
* Still has bowl game to play
Do you agree with Dave? Post your comments below.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com.