By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Right now, Illinois football isn’t going anywhere.
But in the future? Well, it could be.
And if someday the Illini pigskin program – arguably the most underachieving in the nation – ever does enjoy achievement on a consistent basis, well, you might be able to look back to the fall of 2013 as the time when the groundwork for that was laid.
No, not on the field. C’mon.
But rather, on the phone when Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas was ringing up the likes of South Florida, North Carolina and Virginia to get the Illini’s future schedules ironed out.
Without any ugly wrinkles.
While I’ve been vocal about being unimpressed with Thomas’ decision-making in regards to hiring a coach to lead his football program, I have been impressed with the third-year AD’s scheduling decisions, which are far more prudent and savvy than those of his predecessor Ron Guenther.
On Wednesday, Illinois announced that it will face the Virginia Cavaliers in a home-and-home series in 2021 and 2022. This news comes on the heels of recent announcements that the Illini have scheduled similar future series against North Carolina (in 2015-16) and South Florida (2017-18).
All those matchups represent games against opponents from major conferences, but also against teams that theoretically should be beatable. For a scuffling program like Illinois, that’s crucial. And as an added bonus, the road games will all be held in desirable, warm-weather destinations.
In college football, the key to building a healthy program is to schedule at least two sure wins and one interesting game against a nonconference opponent. Then with at least two nonconference victories under your belt, if your team can win just four league games, you’re going bowling.
While those humble numbers won’t win you championships or great glory, they can help build a foundation for greater success. Because, to enjoy success at all, teams need to first string together bowl appearances.
Illinois, however, has gone to only six bowls in the past 20 years and strung two of them together just once during that time. The reason the Illini don’t enjoy any football success is because they can’t sustain any football success.
And part of that inability is due to foolish scheduling. For example, back in 2001, Illinois won the Big Ten and went to the Sugar Bowl. But then in 2002, the Illini lost their season opener against Missouri inside the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis (an ill-advised series if ever there was one) and then fell on the road at Southern Miss the following week (how does a Big Ten program not play a game home until Week 3?).
Thanks in large part to that 0-2 pothole, Illinois ended up 5-7, falling one game shy of bowl eligibility.
The Sugar Bowl momentum was dead, just like that.
Flash forward to 2007, and Illinois went to the Rose Bowl. Then, in ’08, however, the Illini again started off the season with a loss to Missouri inside that infernal St. Louis dome. Nine weeks later, in the midst of the Big Ten season, Illinois then inexplicably took part in another domed game – this time at Ford Field against nonconference foe Western Michigan. The Illini lost that one too, and ultimately ended the season 5-7, yes, one game shy of bowl eligibility.
The Rose Bowl momentum was dead, just like that.
The Illini had a lot of bad play in both the 2002 and 2008 seasons, but the bad scheduling also didn’t help things. At all.
Now, in an ideal world, Illinois already would be in the position of a Wisconsin, which recently announced that it will face off against SEC powerhouse LSU at Lambeau Field in Green Bay during the 2016 season.
Illinois, however, with its 17-game Big Ten losing streak, doesn’t live in an ideal world. And until it does, it needs to schedule smart.
So far, Mike Thomas has done a nice job of that for the future, with the latest example being Virginia, a school that the Illini have met only twice before – both times in a bowl game.
If this scheduling plan works out, Illinois’ future series with the Cavaliers could be part of what helps the Illini actually earn postseason berths on a consistent basis.
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.