By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) On Tuesday, I wrote a column calling for an Illini football encore in Chicago. And that morning, Illini coach Tim Beckman called for the very same thing.
After saying that Illinois is in the “talking phases” about scheduling another game at Soldier Field, Beckman added, “That’s what college football’s all about in my opinion. To give your players a chance to experience something that might never get experienced again.”
After those comments, the Tribune reported that “it may be a while before Beckman gets his wish [to return to Chicago], because working out the logistics will be difficult – especially when the Big Ten moves to a nine-game conference schedule in 2016.”
But I don’t see why playing another game at Soldier Field has to be difficult at all. Or, really, why 2016 should have to anything to do with it, considering how Illinois already has an open spot on its schedule for the season opener just two years from now – on Sept. 5, 2015.
I’d like to see Illinois look into scheduling another nonconference game for that date prior to the ho-hum home games against Kent State, Western Illinois and Middle Tennessee State it already has on the 2015 docket.
And even though the Tribune claims “the Illini likely won’t be coming back to Soldier Field before 2019 at the earliest,” I’ve compiled a list of nonconference opponents that also have an open date on Sept. 5, 2015.
Hey, I like to help.
What we do know about 2015 is that if a Chicago game is played for the season opener, it won’t be against a team from the Pac-12, the conference that has produced Illinois’ last two Soldier Field foes: Washington and Washington State (in 1994). That’s because very team in the Pac-12 already has its schedule filled for Sept. 5.
The ACC, SEC and Big 12, however, do all have league members still looking for a game. Might one of them be interested in playing in an NFL stadium and offering their fans a late-summer trip to Chicago?
You never know unless you ask.
If Illinois were to ask, the SEC teams with open dates on Sept. 5 are Arkansas, Kentucky, LSU and Texas A&M. From the Big 12, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and West Virginia are all free. And out of the ACC, Clemson, Duke, Georgia Tech, Miami, Pitt and Syracuse are each seeking season-opening opponents.
Now, some schools on that list – such as LSU and Oklahoma – simply seem highly unlikely to schedule a series with Illinois. Others, meanwhile – such as Clemson, Texas A&M, Miami and Oklahoma State (if only because of the presence QB Wes Lunt, a Cowboys transfer, on the Illini roster) – seem like long shots too.
Two schools – Pitt (at Akron) and Texas Tech (at Arkansas) – already have nonconference road games scheduled for Sept. 12 or Sept. 19, 2015, so I’d say you can count them out too.
That leaves the likes of Arkansas, Duke, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Syracuse and West Virginia as potential opponents from this list. Arkansas could be intriguing, and it’s possible that Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema (formerly of Wisconsin) might taking his new team up into his former Big Ten stomping grounds.
But, while it’s difficult to project how good Illinois will be two seasons from now, Arkansas also might be quite tough to beat. One would think that Georgia Tech and West Virginia would also be formidable foes, while Kentucky, Syracuse or Duke might give the Illini the best chances to win.
Really, though, I’d probably jump at the chance to play any of them. Because, I hope that the Illini don’t lose their chance to play football again in Chicago in 2015 – and win some additional traction among the city’s fans and recruits.
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.