Don’t Feel I-L-L: College Football Preview 2006

Dust the mothballs off of Lee Corso – the college football season is here! With that, here are my thoughts on the Illini (views on this morning’s report in the Chicago Sun-Times of the apparent demise of Chief Illiniwek will come at a different time), Big Ten, and the rest of college football:

1) Mediocrity = Zook the Messiah – The preseason prognosticators have been taking a collective dump on the Illinois football team. CBS Sportsline and the Chicago Tribune are just two of the multitudes of media outlets that have picked the Illini to finish dead last in the Big Ten this season, while ESPN already has us on the “waiting list” for the National Bottom 10. I know that last year was the most horrible season in recent memory (and believe me, as someone that started following Illinois after my marticulation to the school in Champaign-Urbana a decade ago, that recent memory might as well be a Wes Craven movie franchise) while the Penn State backups are still scoring on our defense as you read this. However, I simply refuse to believe that a team that is returning 20 starters from last season along with a top 30 recruiting class coming in (which doesn’t take into account the addition of stud defensive end Melvin Alaeze) is going to be nearly as awful as everyone believes.

So, let me make a bold prediction: the Illini will make a bowl this season. Yes, you read that correctly. Any bowl would be of the Motor City variety as opposed to the Rose, but it would be a bowl nonetheless. How could this happen, other than it being a delusional dream of a flaming Illini homer? Well, in the midst of the college presidents saying that insituting a playoff system would make the season too long, they decided to add a 12th game to the regular season schedule. Completely logical, right? What’s bad for college football in general, though, could be a boon for weak BCS teams such as the Illini. The upshot is that a team only needs to finish .500 to get the minimum of 6 wins to be bowl-eligible. That means if a team can sweep its 4-game non-conference schedule, it can be pitiful in conference play yet still end up in a bowl.

This recipe is in place for the Illini. The mighty Division 1-AA Eastern Illinois Panthers are coming into town for a guarantee game this weekend (although if the Illini somehow come up short here while I attend this game with my law school buddy that went the EIU, I might be pulling a Salman Rushdie for a few years). There is also an October game against the Ohio University, whose existence seems solely to be an excuse for pompous Ohio State grads to call their school THE Ohio State University. Meanwhile, Illinois has two Big East opponents in Rutgers and Syracuse, which might as well be guarantee games. As bad as Illinois was last season, they still were able to beat Rutgers – and the Scarlet Knights were good enough by Big East standards to make it to a bowl! Syracuse, on the other hand, couldn’t even get a single Big East conference victory. Simply put, the Big East is comparable to the Little Sisters of the Poor Conference, or worse yet, the National League. A statement categorizing these two opponents as BCS teams would be ruled as perjury by a court of law.

As long as Illinois can get through its non-conference schedule unscathed, which is a reasonable belief, we only need 2 Big Ten Conference victories to go bowling. Win number one is simple – as I’ve stated before, we’re playing Indiana at home this year, which makes that game a virtual lock in our favor. Therefore, the question is where we’re going to get win number two. Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa, and Wisconsin are all out of the question. That leaves Michigan State, Purdue, and Northwestern on the table. Purdue looks to have one of the strongest offenses in the Big Ten this season, so I’m going to put an Illini win over the Boilermakers into the unlikely category. The matchup with Michigan State is a prime opportunity, since we’re the-game-after-the-Notre-Dame-game for them this year. As I’ll allude to later on in this preview, the Spartans have a habit of catching the Irish with their drunken leprechaun pants down because MSU is invariably always the opponent in the-game-after-the-Michigan-game for Notre Dame. This leads to Michigan State subsequently crash down from that emotional high the very next week against a vastly inferior opponent.

The most likely scenario, though, is us getting our last necessary win against in-state rival Northwestern. The Wildcats will deservedly be the subject of numerous human interest stories as the program recovers from the sudden death of head coach Randy Walker (I can’t even comprehend the emotions that are going to be on display tonight when Northwestern kicks off the season at Miami of Ohio, which just happens to be Walker’s alma mater). In football terms, however, Northwestern is going to have an inexperienced coach in Pat Fitzgerald with an inexperienced quarterback to be determined at a later date. With that combo, I can’t see how anyone other than the Hoosiers are going to fall below the Wildcats in Big Ten play this season.

As the crack smoke clears from my room, a bowl actually looks like an attainable goal for Illinois. Now, we’re going to have to figure out what to do with Ron Zook’s dance moves.

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2) Irish Eyes and Kissing Cousins Won’t Be Smiling – Being able to predict who will end up being the best team in football four months before the championship, whether it’s college or pro, is pretty tough. However, finding an overrated team to bet heavily against is easier than Paris Hilton in an NFL locker room. There are two “hot” teams to sell short this season: Notre Dame and West Virginia. The weak Irish defense is going to catch up with them this season – I really can’t believe that anyone who watched the Fiesta Bowl last year could rationally put Notre Dame in the same class as Ohio State regardless of how many players the Buckeyes have lost. Even if the Irish somehow win their first three games, which certainly isn’t anywhere near a lock with Georgia Tech, Penn State, and Michigan being the opponents, as stated above the Charlie Weis squad will find a way to crap out against Michigan State like they always do.

At the same time, while it’s perfectly reasonable to rely on this logic for a team to make a bowl (see “Fighting Illini” in point #1), the worst argument that anyone can ever have to say that someone is a national championship contender is that the team has schedule akin to playing the runners-up from a sixth grade Punt, Pass, and Kick contest every week, which is what a number of prognosticators seem to be saying about Big East member West Virginia. For those with short memories, this was a popular sentiment in making fellow Big Easter Louisville one of the trendy preseason national title contenders last season. The problem with weak schedules, though, is that any loss is a really bad loss, such as Louisville losing to South Florida. The money here says that the Mountaineers won’t be running the table (possibly a loss against said Louisville Cardinals), which kills any title hopes.

3) Drink Like a Champion Today – The Chicagoist put together a nice list of bars in Chicago where Big Ten and Notre Dame alums can cheer their respective teams with fellow alums and fans. I can attest to validity of all of the Illini bars listed (and pretty much all of the non-Illini bars mentioned, as well). However, and maybe it’s just me, I always felt as though at least 50% of the bars on the North Side of Chicago are owned by Michigan State fans. The number of pictures that I’ve seen of the Flint Munchkin, er, Mateen Cleaves hanging on wall while I’ve been out on the town is astounding.

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4) Big Ten Final Standings Prediction – Something you’re going to be hearing all season, regardless of whether you live in Big Ten Country, is how stacked the Buckeyes are. Watch out for those pesky Illini kids. The projected conference standings: (1) Ohio State, (2) Michigan, (3) Iowa, (4) Penn State, (5) Wisconsin, (6) Purdue, (7) Michigan State, (8) Illinois, (9) Minnesota, (10) Northwestern, (11) Indiana.

5) BCS Conference Champions Predictions: Nothing too crazy here except that I believe this is the year that USC gets knocked off of its Nick Lachey-sized pedestal, if only for a season. The projected BCS conference champs: Big Ten – Ohio State, SEC – Auburn, ACC – Florida State, Big 12 – Texas, Pac-10 – California, Big East – Louisville.

6) BCS Championship Game Prediction: Auburn is going to be battle-tested in the brutal SEC this season. However, Troy Smith is not only going to roll over Brady Quinn in the Heisman Trophy race, but his team is going to make Columbus forget about the taser use on Maurice Clarett and the reading habits of Mike Cooper. Predicted national championship result: Ohio State over Auburn.

In about 48 hours, I’ll be tailgating outside of Memorial Stadium once again. Even if Illinois doesn’t end up in a bowl or goes 0-for-the-Big-Ten, there are few things better in life than popping some beers and placing meat over fire with some buddies on a college football Saturday. Happy college football season!

(Images from Deadspin and Deadspin again)