Asmussen | The easy part is over for Illini football

Asmussen | The easy part is over for Illini football

Illinois has done the easy part. It is 2-0 as expected. The games against Kent State and FCS Western Illinois should have been less stressful. But both were Ws.

Now comes the tricky part: Reaching 3-0. It has been seven long years since it happened at Illinois. Ron Zook's final team beat ranked Arizona State to get halfway to bowl eligibility.

And it kept winning. Starting 6-0 and moving as high as No. 16 in the nation.

Then, the wheels fell off. And the motor. And the exhaust pipe. And the bumper.

With pressure on Zook building each week, the 2011 team dropped their final six and Zook was told "your services are no longer required."

This is not 2011. The head coach is as safe as anyone in the country.

Folks outside C-U keep putting him on the hot seat, but they have no clue. Lovie Smith was Josh Whitman's hand-picked choice to restore order. I said earlier in the year that he would keep his job if he went 0-12 this season and I meant it. And he will keep his job if his team repeats last year's 2-10 finish.

Illinois is all-in with Smith. The school created a promotion based on his cool beard. You don't do that for someone on the hot seat.

Smith will be here in 2019 and beyond. So, his guys can relax. They are not playing for his job.

While closely observing Zook's final team, there was no question the heat on the coach had a major impact on the players. They were tight by the time the team dropped two in a row and a mess in the final four games.

After the air was released from the balloon and Zook was fired, the team played relaxed and won its bowl game.

Lesson learned

The current team is too young to tense up. Oh sure, there are a handful of veterans on the team who might be thinking about their legacy. But they've got the memory of last year's third game to serve as motivation.

The Illini got lapped 47-23 at South Florida last year. The same Bulls who visit Soldier Field on Saturday (sure would have been helpful to play the game at Memorial Stadium. Oh well).

"I think we're in a much better spot," senior guard Nick Allegretti said. "Went down both games this year and came back. I think a lot of our execution issues that have happened so far in these first two games have been on us. And while you don't want to see that, it's a little comforting to see if we run the offense the way we know, with the way we're coached, it's going to be successful. We've just got to pull it together for a full 60 minutes."

What would 3-0 mean to Allegretti?

"A ton," he said. "That's our goal coming out of nonconference. Big Ten play is hard, so you want to get as many wins as you can before you go into that."

South Florida rallied for a win Saturday against Georgia Tech. The Bulls are also looking for a 3-0 start.

"Not a Power 5 team, but they are really a talented team," Allegretti said. "To go 3-0, that would be awesome for myself, the rest of the seniors, the old guys,"

There will be a bunch of Allegretti fans in the stands, hoping to see it happen. He guesses at least 30 family members and friends will be at Soldier Field.

"Maybe more than that," Allegretti said. "It will be a fun experience for everybody."

Taking a step

The ultimate goal for Illinois should be taking the Big Ten West, winning the conference title game and earning a place in the College Football Playoffs. That should be every team's goal.

The reality for Illinois is that for the dream to come true, it must first take smaller steps.

Like win more games than last year. Two is a low bar. One it has already reached. Three comes next, then four, etc.

The last three Illinois head coaches who reached a third year (Bill Cubit was fired after one season) all made a bowl in their third year.

It was a close call for Tim Beckman, who needed to knock off Penn State and Northwestern in 2014. But he did it.

Zook made it with room to spare in 2007, knocking off No. 1 Ohio State in one of the most surprising turnarounds in Big Ten history. The team won nine games and played in the Rose Bowl.

Ron Turner went from three wins in 1998 to eight wins the next season. His Kurt Kittner-led team had the best postseason offensive performance in school history, piling up 63 points against Virginia.

Smith doesn't need all that. He just wants to see progress.

"In order for us to take that next step, we need to be able to get this third win," Smith said. "We're looking forward to getting back out on the practice field this week."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.