Asmussen | Three degrees of winnability for Illini football

Asmussen | Three degrees of winnability for Illini football

Lovie Smith likes to break the season into four quarters: three games in each.

It's a good idea that seems to work for him,

But I'm not a high-paid college coach. I've got a different system.

I split the Illinois season into three categories, based on winnability: Very likely, toss-ups and long shots.

In the first four games, Smith's team played all three kinds. There were the very likely wins, what we'll call VLs, against Kent State and Western Illinois.

The Kent State game was much closer than oddsmakers expected. The Illini had to rally for a 31-24 victory. But the category placement was correct.

South Florida was a toss-up (TU). The Bulls have been a constant bowl contender and Charlie Strong is a solid coach.

Smith's team could easily be 3-1 going into the open week. It controlled South Florida until the fourth quarter. The five missing players, who were held out because of suspensions, would have made a difference.

Too late now. The example has been set and it should not happen again.

The home game against Penn State was, at best, a long shot (LS). The Nittany Lions are a top-10 team despite the loss of several stars. Illinois stayed close for three quarters before Penn State played like Penn State.

The challenge for Smith is to achieve what the last six head coaches at Illinois accomplished: qualify for a bowl game by their third seasons.

Two, John Mackovic and Lou Tepper, did it sooner.

With enough bowl games for every .500 team in the country, it is a relatively low bar.

The Illini need four wins in their last eight games to play a 13th.

Here's the breakdown on how to get there in the three categories:


Oct. 6 at Rutgers — The Scarlet Knights are similar to Illinois. Trying to rebuild with a third-year coach.

They just got drilled by better-than-you-think Buffalo. (The Bulls are undefeated).

Yes, the game is in New Jersey. But one of Lovie Smith's two Big Ten wins, and the only one on the road, came at Rutgers during his first season at Illinois in 2016.

Nov. 3 vs. Minnesota — The Gophers fooled some people (not me) with a 3-0 start, but they easily could have lost to Fresno State.

Coach P.J. Fleck has his clever sayings (Row the Boat, yada, yada, yada). And he coached a really good Western Michigan team in a New Year's Day bowl.

But there isn't a lot of substance there and Minnesota is short on talent. On Dad's Day at Memorial Stadium, it should be a two-touchdown victory for Illinois.

Nov. 24 at Northwestern — Pat Fitzgerald has done wonderful work in Evanston and the Wildcats might still get it together. But the team that showed up in losses against Duke and Akron won't win many more games. Assuming Northwestern is out of bowl contention by Thanksgiving weekend, there will be little motivation and a sparse crowd.


Oct. 13 vs. Purdue — Why not VL? The Boilermakers have already lost three games. But they could be 4-0, losing the three by a combined eight points.

Pudue wants to get back to the postseason and has the Illinois game circled in black and gold. Jeff Brohm lost the last time he was here (with Western Kentucky).

Oct. 27 at Maryland — It's the first-ever trip to College Park for the Illinois football team. The Terrapins are led by interim coach Matt Canada, who was rumored as a candidate for the offensive coordinator position at Illinois.

The off-the-field turmoil, which includes the suspension of coach D.J. Durkin, has not destroyed the season. The Terps will be hard to beat at home, but not impossible.

Nov. 10 at Nebraska — The Cornhuskers are the only winless team in the Big Ten, but with a first-year coach they have plenty to prove. And Scott Frost figures to have the team playing better by the final month.

Lincoln has not been kind to the Illini since Nebraska joined the Big Ten. The Huskers won the three games by a combined 115-49.


Oct. 20 at Wisconsin — The loss to BYU was a glitch. It won't likely happen again.

Wisconsin's offensive strength, running the ball, is a weakness for the Illinois defense. As long as Jonathan Taylor stays healthy, the Badgers will pile up yards. Camp Randall has been a House of Horrors for the Illini in recent years. The last Illini win there was in 2002.

Nov. 17 vs. Iowa — It's great to have the Hawkeyes in the same division as Illinois, creating a better rivalry. But until the Illini can beat Iowa on a regular basis, the Hawkeyes will see the game as a walkover.

Iowa's last loss in Champaign came in 2008.


Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at