By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Considering that the University of Illinois hasn’t started out even 4-0 in a football season since the fall of 1951 – back when Dick Butkus was merely the meanest 8-year-old in Chicago – the message a friend of mine posted last Sunday on my Facebook did read a bit outrageous.
Even though – outrageously enough – it really wasn’t.
“You look at that sad little schedule,” he wrote, sharing the thoughts of an Illini Nation suddenly puffing out its long-sunken chest, “and you can fantasize about 12-0.”
Yes, never has such an outlandish football fantasy seemed more realistic in Champaign. That’s because, after last Saturday night’s feverish 17-14 victory over then-No. 22 Arizona State that launched No. 24 Illinois back into the national rankings – and consciousness – for the first time since September ’08, the table indeed is set for potentially unprecedented success.
But can the Illini really run it?
Earlier this week, AthlonSports.com columnist Mitch Light shared his thoughts on the topic, writing: “Take a look at Illinois’ remaining schedule in 2011 and tell me if I’m crazy for believing this football team can win 11 games.”
No crazier, I’d say, than believing it can even win a dozen.
“The Illini, already 3-0, still have five more home games,” Light went on to write, “and three of their four road games are against the three weakest teams in the Big Ten – Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota. The other road game is at Penn State, a team that escaped Philadelphia with a 14-10 win over Temple last weekend.
“The home games are against Western Michigan, Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin. My guess is that Illinois will be favored in all but one remaining game, vs. Wisconsin.
My guess is that – right now, at least – Light is correct with that guess. Nevertheless, as tantalizing as it might be for Illini fans to fantasize about an epic showdown of 10-0 Wisconsin vs. 10-0 Illinois at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 19 with ESPN College GameDay in attendance and a berth in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game on the line, the fact remains that Nov. 19 is still nine Saturdays away.
And, as Light also pointed out in his column: “It’s always a bit dangerous to put too much faith in a Ron Zook-coached team …”
So, before Illinois can get to 10-0 – or, you know, 12-0 – it first needs to go 4-0 by maintaining its focused against a 2-1 Western Michigan team that the Illini are developing an unlikely rivalry with.
As Illini fans know all too well, the last time the schools met in 2008, WMU upended Illinois at Ford Field, ultimately denying the Illini a bowl appearance as they lost their last three games to finish with a frustrating 5-7 record. Interestingly, though, in addition to this Saturday’s matchup, Illinois again hosts the Broncos in Week 1 of the 2012 season. And then, come 2016, the Illini actually will open the season on the road against Western Michigan at – Where?! – Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo.
Putting something of a damper on the zoo that Illini fans’ expectations could soon become, on Thursday night Champaign News-Gazette sports editor Jim Rossow actually predicted a 28-27 victory for Western Michigan on Saturday.
The pick likely was issued as a caveat to Illinois, as it needs to hold its horses – and the Broncos – before it can gallop into the Big Ten schedule next weekend with championship aspirations.
That isn’t to say, though, that the Illini – who appear to have in sophomore QB Nathan Scheelhaase the program’s best leader since Kurt Kittner coupled with a surprisingly stout and speedy defense – can’t make a run for the Rose Bowl.
Or perhaps even more than that.
And if the Illini do, some fans will have to begrudgingly give at least some of the credit to recently retired Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther. Much maligned for his questionable football scheduling in recent years – which included just six homes games in each of the past four seasons – Guenther got it right with eight in 2011.
I suppose you can consider it his parting gift.
One that gives Illinois a legitimate shot at greatness.
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. Read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.