By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) The football team is 2-1. The basketball team is on a recruiting roll. And Tim Beckman currently has more wins than sideline violations.
Yes, it’s a good time to be an Illini fan.
Until the Big Ten football season starts, at least. Then we’ll see.
But as the Illini prep for a busy weekend – on both the football front with Saturday morning’s game against Miami (Ohio) and the basketball front with Saturday night’s Illini Street Jam season kickoff event – I have a few thoughts to share about the state of our state’s flagship school.
Illini Don’t Stick With Chicago
So, the Illini football team won’t be coming back to Chicago.
Not any time soon, at least.
That’s a bummer, as I was hoping that Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas would fill the school’s open date on Sept. 5, 2015 with a matchup against a major-conference opponent at Soldier Field.
However, I am pleased that Illinois did get a good major-conference opponent, even if they won’t face them in the Windy City. On Thursday morning, the school announced a two-year series with the North Carolina Tar Heels for the 2015 and 2016 seasons. On Sept. 19, 2015, Illinois will play at North Carolina before the Tar Heels return to at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Sept. 10, 2016.
For the record, UNC already has a game scheduled for Sept. 5, 2015, against South Carolina in Charlotte at Bank of America Stadium, home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. So, the Tar Heels weren’t an option for that date in any case, and Illinois had to bump previously scheduled tilts against Kent State and Western Illinois up a week each to fit them in.
In a release on Thursday, Thomas said: “We have worked very hard at securing future football opponents and we’re happy to be able to include a peer institution in North Carolina.”
Both UNC and South Florida, which Illinois will face in a home-and-home series for 2017-18, are ideal nonconference fits from my viewpoint. With the Illini trying to climb back to respectability the Tar Heels and Bulls offer respectable-yet-beatable opponents. Well done by Thomas.
But now figure out how to increase the Illini’s exposure in Chicago in the coming years. Perhaps a game against Northwestern at Soldier Field should be placed on the table.
Scheduling Quirks & Curiosities
Along with Illinois announcing the North Carolina series, the school also revealed that the rest of the 2016 and 207 schedules will be filled out with Murray State and Western Michigan at home in ’16 and Ball State in ’17.
With that news, two things stood out to me. One is the trick that Thomas pulled by getting Western Michigan to agree to switch the 2016 game – which inexplicably had been slated for Kalamazoo – to Memorial Stadium. It must have cost a pretty penny to flip locations, but with the Illini’s embarrassing 23-17 to the Broncos at Ford Field in 2008 still seared into fans’ brains, it was probably worth it.
The second item of note is that Illinois scheduled the game against Murray State – an FCS school – even though in February the Big Ten announced it would no longer be scheduling FCS opponents beginning in 2015 or 2016 because they didn’t create enough excitement for fans. In August, Big Ten commissioner Delany clarified the “ban,” saying that members have made it a “goal” to keep FCS opponents off schedules.
“We don’t have any penalties for those that don’t,” Delany explained. “It’s not like a violation of our rules. But everybody agreed when every game is televised, every game matters and the fans matter. Interest in those games is less. They’re from another division. They have 20 less scholarships. It’s like a junior college team playing against a high school team or a high school team playing against a JV team.”
Apparently, Illinois is OK with that. It will be interesting to see if other Big Ten schools still are too, despite the chatter otherwise.
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.