CHAMPAIGN – The earth-shaking buildup toward the Aug. 30 date with Missouri is legitimate.
It marks only the fifth time in 40-plus years that Illinois has embarked with a ranking in the Top 20. And Missouri is even higher, sitting at No. 6 in The Associated Press poll.
Scheduled on ESPN in prime time (7:30 p.m.), the St. Louis showdown is the nation's premier game on the season's first weekend. Looking back, here are the five most-hyped Illini openers in the last 40 years.
Sept. 10, 1977 – Michigan carried a No. 2 ranking into Memorial Stadium for Gary Moeller's first game as Illini coach. Much was made of his previous 10 seasons under Bo Schembechler at Michigan. The buildup fizzled as the Wolverines roared 37-9 and gave Illinoisans an idea of what to expect in the brief (6-24-3) Moeller era.
Sept. 4, 1982 – Having ended the previous 7-4 season with a 49-12 romp at Northwestern, the Illini met the Wildcats again and coasted 49-13 with 67,036 in attendance for the first night game at Memorial Stadium. The early game also gave Mike White's Illini a tuneup edge on Michigan State, which lost in 1980-81-82 in what were openers for the Spartans but second games for Illinois. The Illini made it to the Liberty Bowl that year.
Sept. 7, 1985 – The Illini were off probation and had all those crack sophomores (Jack Trudeau, Craig Swoope, David Williams, Jim Juriga, Thomas Rooks) from the 1983 Big Ten champions ready for a final run. They came in ranked No. 11 vs. USC's No. 6, and 76,369 turned out to see the Trojans prevail 20-10.
Sept. 4, 1989 – Illinois traveled to Los Angeles after the Glasnost Bowl trip to Russia was canceled. Southern California, ranked No. 5, led 13-0 deep into the fourth quarter when Jeff George fired two touchdown passes to pull it out 14-13. Illinois entered the game ranked No. 22 and came out No. 10, only to lose the home opener 38-7 to Colorado 12 days later.
Sept. 2, 1995 – A whopping 70,193 jammed Memorial Stadium to see two ranked teams. No. 25 Illinois featured Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy on defense and Robert Holcombe at running back, but No. 13 Michigan prevailed yet again 38-14.
And then there were those openers that were turnoffs almost before they got started and certainly ended up that way.
Sept. 21, 1968 – Illinois still was reeling from the "slush fund" when Jim Valek opened his second season against Kansas and cannon-armed quarterback Bobby Douglass. It was no contest, 47-7, as many of the 46,359 Illini fans left early. This was the start of a 1-19 Illini run at the end of the 1960s. Illinois topped 50,000 in attendance twice in those two years.
Sept. 9, 1978 – If you were one of the 40,091 in attendance, you'll never forget the 0-0 tie against Northwestern. It stands in ignominy as the worst opener ever. Moeller's Illini blew four good chances after reaching field goal range but could not stir the scoreboard. Illinois won one game that year.
Sept. 3, 1988 – You never could have imagined how successful John Mackovic would be after his first Illini team lost 44-7 at home to Washington State. It was a demoralizing start, but a month later the Illini shocked Ohio State 31-12 in Columbus, the first of five straight victories against the Buckeyes.
Sept. 1, 1994 – The idea of playing a game at Chicago's Soldier Field seemed like a good one, but it fizzled as only 39,472 turned out to see Washington State edge the Illini 10-9. Coach Lou Tepper never captured the imagination of UI fans as his Illini dropped 14 games by six points or less in his five seasons.
Aug. 31, 2002 – Like last year, when neither the Illini nor Missouri was ranked (and nobody knew what to expect), the Tigers prevailed. The 2002 game followed Illinois' 10-2 season and had fans pondering the advisability of the new series in St. Louis. Jon Beutjer, Antoineo Harris and a superb receiving corps headed by Brandon Lloyd and Walter Young couldn't pull it off, falling 33-20. Ron Turner's teams won nine times in 36 tries from that point.
The burning question is: Should Illinois schedule such an important game so early?
An answer of "yes" is less definite if the Illini lose. That's always a punch in the stomach.
But you have to risk something to gain something. And, looking back, early setbacks haven't been fatal. The 1946 champions fell early to Notre Dame and won the Rose Bowl. White's 1983 club fell to Missouri and won every Big Ten game. Mackovic's 1990 club lost the opener to Arizona, upset eventual national champion Colorado 23-22 and shared the Big Ten title. Last year Illinois lost to Missouri and still reached the Rose Bowl.
There is so much to win when the nation is watching, so much to gain from a recognition-and-respect standpoint.
Later on, when this epic game is viewed with the advantage of hindsight, perhaps it can be placed in perspective, good or bad. And we can debate whether the outcome had an effect on early Big Ten trips to Penn State and Michigan.
But for now, with the Tigers talking national championship, it is certainly their biggest opener in decades, and perhaps the UI's as well.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.