Tate: Has Illinois become small market?
The older I get, the more I wander. Here are some senior wanderings ...
— If you love football, how can you stay away from the TV set with Packers-Saints tonight, Missouri vs. Arizona State (the UI's upcoming opponent) Friday night, and Michigan-Notre Dame Saturday night?
For weak-kneed Illini fans who favored dropping Missouri, you're advised that Arizona State will be even tougher. The Sun Devils are a one-TD favorite over the Tigers.
Don't be fooled by Notre Dame's 23-20 loss to South Florida. The Irish doubled the Bulls in yards gained, 508 to 254; marched 76 yards to the goal line early, only to see a fumble returned 96 yards; and had two more marches of 61 and 44 yards fouled by interceptions. Turnovers told that story, and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly — who was wild to the point of being obscene Saturday — is making a quarterback change as a result.
Much of the Big Ten's reputation in 2011 will be determined by how Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue handle Notre Dame. Since 1978, the Wolverine-Irish series is tied at 13-13 (one tie).
— Has Illinois football evolved, in terms of major conferences, into a small market operation?
That's the harsh reality when you see Memorial Stadium seating capacity decreased to just more than 60,000, and more than a quarter of it left unfilled in early-September games.
The gap between Illinois and the Big Ten's upper division is greater with each passing year. In non-attractive games Saturday, Iowa drew 70,000, and Michigan State attracted 75,000. Five other conference members drew more. With an announced figure around 45,000, Illinois has tumbled into the same category with Purdue (42,000) and Indiana (40,000).
In what became a bowl season in 2010, the Illini drew over 50,000 for SIU, NIU, Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota. Illinois has a stronger home schedule in 2011, but there isn't much new director Mike Thomas can do from a marketing standpoint unless Ron Zook's team wins big ... which is how Kelly turned Cincinnati's attendance from half-full to 97 percent of capacity.
— What is the first major task Thomas will tackle?
In terms of evaluating coaches and surrounding staffers, he'll need time, and said exactly that.
But he's diving right into the Assembly Hall business. The UI Board of Trustees will not finalize a project manager and an architecture-engineering firm Friday, preferring to postpone those decisions until Thomas has been brought up to speed on the proposed renovation.
— Is North Carolina State transfer Russell Wilson poised to shake up the Big Ten football race?
"He was very efficient," said Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, quashing concerns that he might have problems adjusting. The quarterback showed exceptional speed and was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week.
Wisconsin opened early against UNLV (won 51-17) to get extra preparation time for Oregon State on Saturday. That may be unnecessary, Oregon State losing its home opener to Sacramento State 29-28 when the underdogs went for two in overtime.
South Dakota State's foe, Southern Utah, also went for two and failed in a 29-28 result.
— Has there been a worse September for major league baseball?
In a bit of a stretch, what we have is roughly 850 windup games that don't matter. You win, you lose, so what?
The wild card was invented to keep the races interesting and the fans attending, on the assumption that there would always be a close battle behind each league's three divisional champions.
Not so in 2011. Atlanta, far behind Philadelphia, has been the National League's runaway wild card leader. Meanwhile, the loser of the Yankees-Red Sox chase is assured in the AL. The playoffs are virtually set with most of the slots cemented since mid-August.
There's not much to get excited about unless you're attracted by the Los Angeles Angels' quest to catch Texas. As of Wednesday morning, they were 3 1/2 games behind in the AL West, and that doesn't exactly tickle the fancy of the slumbering fans in the Midwest, South and East.
— What did new Indiana coach Kevin Wilson think when he watched tape of Saturday's loss to Ball State?
You'll recall Wilson didn't view 2010 Hoosier games, preferring to give everybody a clean start. What he discovered Saturday was a lack of "energy, passion, aggressiveness and bounce in our step" as Ball State outscored the Hoosiers 13-3 in the second half of a 27-20 result.
If I heard him right, Wilson made the point that it'll be up to the players because "the crowd is not going to energize us."
— How will Ohio State coach Luke Fickell handle players coming off suspension?
Fickell gets four players back Saturday for Toledo, and will get four more after the fifth game. He said: "Getting the four guys back will be assets Saturday, but the guys who stepped in did a good job, and they're assets too. We'll have competition for positions."
Any way you figure it, the Buckeyes will probably have an advantage in talent in virtually every game they play this season. We'll see if that holds true in the Buckeyes' first four Big Ten games against Michigan State, Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin.
— How can national champion Auburn be out of the Top 25 while carrying a 16-game win streak?
The answer is that Cam Newton is gone, and Saturday's lucky 42-38 win over Utah State was the seventh in a 16-game span by a margin of four points or less. Dating to a 38-35 Outback defeat of Northwestern two years ago, Auburn has won nine games by eight points or less.
It sounds like Illinois in reverse. Question is: Can Auburn keep it going? Mississippi State invades Saturday.
— Will coach Mike Locksley last out the season?
New Mexico's Lobos are 2-23 since he arrived in Albuquerque. Little more than 21,000 showed up Saturday and they were grumbling again because the Lobos nearly doubled the first downs, 22-12, but fell 14-10 to Colorado State. New Mexico was in position to pull it out but lost a fumble on the 15-yard line with 23 seconds to go.
New Mexico started last season with a 72-0 loss to Oregon, and finished with a 66-17 loss to TCU.
— Should I send Minnesota's Jerry Kill an apology?
For those of us who thought the Gophers were getting in over their head, they came within 19-17 of Southern Cal and might have pulled it off if they hadn't missed two field goals and thrown an interception at midfield with 53 seconds on the clock.
Kill will start speedy veteran Marqueis Gray at quarterback against New Mexico State even though freshman Max Shortell went 7 for 13 for 98 yards after Gray left with leg cramps late in the third quarter at USC. Minnesota outscored the Trojans 14-0 in the second half.
That's more proof that USC ain't what it used to be. The Trojans have dropped five of the last 10 games including lopsided losses to Oregon 53-32 and Oregon State 36-7 last season.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.