It’s all a matter of perception.
From the Illini standpoint, these October dates against Wisconsin and Michigan State are underdog assignments against physically dominant conference rivals.
Since 2003, a decade of futility shows Illinois has beaten these teams once apiece in 15 meetings, and the Spartans are two-touchdown favorites Saturday.
Simply put, it doesn’t look good for an Illini team seeking its first Big Ten win since Oct. 8, 2011.
But the national perspective is quite different. The Badgers and Spartans are viewed as plodding, defense-oriented clubs that missed the boat amid the modern swing to spread-formation, mobile-quarterback systems.
And the Big Ten Conference is perceived so weak that Ohio State, winner of 19 straight games since Urban Meyer arrived, may not reach the BCS championship game without multiple upsets elsewhere.
Numbers never lie
We are engaged in a system in which RPI — strength of opponents — plays a large role in determining who qualifies for title showdowns.
A computer ranking makes up one-third of this year’s selection process, and the computer puts Ohio State a deep No. 5 behind (in order) Florida State, Alabama, Missouri and Oregon.
The Buckeyes, as was their choice, lost ground initially by taking a soft route in four preconference wins. They beat a Buffalo team that gave up 70 points to Baylor. They defeated a San Diego State team that lost to Eastern Illinois. The other victims were Cal (1-6) and Florida A&M (2-5).
Now 7-0, the Buckeyes won hard-fought clashes against Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa, pulling out the latter two in the fourth quarter. That’s sufficient insofar as the win-loss column is concerned but doesn’t exactly wow coaches who vote in the USA Today poll (another one-third of the BCS makeup).
Nor, without outside help, can the Buckeyes expect to climb even if they defeat the next four opponents: Penn State, Purdue, Illinois and Indiana. And that leaves Michigan, which faces a challenge to remain No. 22 in the BCS poll as the Wolverines make road trips to Michigan State, Northwestern and Iowa while also playing Nebraska at home.
The point is, there’s a strong chance the Buckeyes will finish the season without meeting a single ranked foe ... and they don’t play either Nebraska or Michigan State.
Thus the Buckeyes, ineligible due to sanctions last season, could miss the title game again without losing a game. There is nothing about their schedule to provide a computer lift, so their hopes appear dependent on Florida State and Oregon losing (assuming Alabama doesn’t).
Aspects of the above are assumptions based on how those of us in the media perceive things. That’s what we do.
Coaches are different. And Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio was clearly upset last week to see Purdue’s chances demeaned prior to the game in East Lansing. He saw pregame stories as bulletin-board material geared to build a fire under the Boilermakers.
“If you read how awful you are, you have two choices ... and Purdue’s players chose to come out and play to win,” Dantonio said.
Michigan State scored on a fumble return and led 7-0 into the fourth quarter, winning 14-0.
Well, Coach, you’re a big favorite again Saturday and that’s more fact than opinion. Whose shoes would you rather be in?
But for Illini players, it stacks up as a chance of a lifetime. And I like the way UI offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is approaching it:
“I don’t see a weakness,” he said. “They’re athletic and relentless up front, and they apply a lot of pressure. But I’m excited about it. We’re going against the No. 1 defense, and that’s not something you do every week. If you don’t like these kind of challenges, you shouldn’t be here.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.