By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) When it comes to University of Illinois football, I’ve had a mantra ever since I walked off campus with my diploma in hand way back in May of 1998.
And that’s been my vow that I wouldn’t be fully back on board with the Illini program until it went to back-to-back bowl games. Now, that might not seem like it’s asking too much of a Big Ten school, but this is Illinois we’re talking about – a pigskin program that Yahoo! Sports last week billed as the second most underachieving in the nation over the past decade. I think that’s probably being kind.
It wasn’t until this past winter – a full 14 seasons after I became a college grad and almost 20 years since Illinois went bowling in 1991-92 – that the Illini finally qualified for consecutive bowl games again. UCLA, which Yahoo! ranked as the biggest underachievers, actually reached six bowls during the past decade.
To Illinois’ credit, however, they even won both their bowls the past two years – but, even so, I’m still not sure that I’m back on board with Illini football.
For one thing, Ron Zook, the coach who guided (use that term loosely) the Illini to back-to-back bowl seasons was fired before his team even played in the most recent one last December. That’s not exactly the hallmark of a stable program. And since taking over as Zook’s successor, Tim Beckman is yet to show me anything to convince me that he indeed is the right guy to finally lift the orange and blue to elusive consistency (never mind, glory).
If, however, Beckman truly is that guy, then he needs to show Illini fans something against Louisiana Tech at 7 p.m. tonight in Champaign. Because this game against the Bulldogs could very well be the difference between a bowl season and a non-bowl season for Beckman & Co.
Currently, Illinois is sitting at 2-1 with tonight’s game the last nonconference tilt before jumping into the Big Ten slate next weekend. If Illinois beats the Bulldogs, it will need to win just three conference games to make Beckman bowl-eligible in his first season – no small thing for a rookie coach – and to make the Illini bowl-eligible in three consecutive seasons for the first time since the school reached bowl games in five straight winters from 1988-1992.
However, if Illinois loses vs. Louisiana Tech, which is 2-0 and averaging 56 points per game in wins over Houston and Rice, it will need to post a 4-4 Big Ten record to make a bowl game. And eyeballing the conference schedule, that .500 record could be a tall order.
With road trips to Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State and Northwestern – a quartet of teams that’s a combined 10-2, with OSU and NU unbeaten – Illinois likely will be quite hard-pressed to win even one of those games. The home schedule, meanwhile, is much more favorable with Penn State, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue traveling to Memorial Stadium with their combined record of 8-4.
But when have you ever known the Illini football team to win every game that it should? Smart money says Illinois drops at least one home game. And while optimists may view things otherwise – and perhaps we all will if the Illini end up routing Louisiana Tech – the odds for a 3-5 Big Ten record appear to be strong as of today.
Of course, Louisiana Tech could rout Illinois instead tonight, leaving all this hope for bowls and even moderate Big Ten success moot as the Illini are exposed as really being the sorry outfit that was scorched so badly by Arizona State.
Here’s to hoping that’s not the case. But here’s also to still wondering whether Beckman’s Illini football program is worth jumping on board with. If it is, or if it isn’t, we should get a clearer picture either way, beginning tonight.
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. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.