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Illinois student fans cheer in the final minute of the game with Kent State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018.

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In his 30th year on the Illinois football beat, AP Top 25 voter Bob Asmussen is on call 24/7. Submit your questions BY CLICKING HERE and he’ll chase down answers.

Illinois football kicks off in eight days. At home. Against Akron.

Good seats available.

Maybe the fans are waiting on the weather (the early forecast calls for cloudy skies and temperatures in the upper 60s at kickoff. Actually, perfect for football).

The price shouldn’t be a hindrance. Tickets in the horseshoe are available for $20 each. Or, you can go the Stubhub route, with seats listed as low as $6 (not counting the pricey fees).

If there is buzz in the air, it’s at a low volume. Other than the naming of the starting quarterback (congrats to Brandon Peters), football is far behind basketball when it comes to fan chatter.

Even though the basketball team hasn’t released its schedule and the first game is two months away.

Football is right around the corner. It should be the center of attention.

I would never tell fans what to do with their money. Or their time.

But that beautiful, historic building on First Street deserves a full house. Red Grange played there. So did Dick Butkus. And David Williams. And Simeon Rice.

Is there a prettier building in town than Memorial Stadium? A place you would rather spend a Saturday morning/afternoon? None that come to mind.

Of course, I am biased. College football grabbed a hold of me at a young age and never let go. I will be a fan forever.

We are allowed to love something that isn’t perfect. College football has its share of flaws. The coaches salaries are out of whack (no offense, rich guys). Television has too much control. Injuries threaten the future of the sport.

Ready for a breakthrough?

Back to attendance. What can Illinois do to put fans in the seats?

As pointed out in last Sunday’s N-G story by Julie Wurth, the school has introduced many fan-friendly programs. Including beer sales to the general public.

All good efforts. But not the cure all.

That comes on the practice fields and at the coaches offices and in recruiting.

Improve the talent. Win more games. To quote Lovie Smith: Simple as that.

If you listen to our weekly radio show, I have said over and over and over again, Illinois will start the season 3-0. Akron has a first-year coach running a team that got hit hard by graduation.

Oddsmakers know the deal and they have the Illini listed as three-TD favorites. The game probably won’t be that close.

UConn gets the Illini at home the second week. The Huskies might be the worst team in the FBS. Coming off a 1-11 season, Randy Edsall is not finding any magic his second time in Storrs. Fortunately, basketball is just around the corner.

Eastern Michigan had the best 2018 record of the nonconference opponents, but also got hit hard by graduation. It figures to be the most competitive of the three nonconference games, but Illinois should still win without much of a fight.

Which brings us to Sept. 21. Nebraska visits Memorial Stadium in what will be the most important game of Lovie Smith’s tenure. If Illinois can win or lose close, it sets up an optimistic final eight games of the season. With a bowl bid a possibility.

The crowd will be good for Illinois-Nebraska, though some will be in the opponent’s red. Ticket sales are ticket sales. You don’t need proof of residence. Nebraska money spends just fine.

In the final eight games, the Illini face seven teams that were in a bowl last season. Michigan is hoping for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan State, Northwestern and Purdue are ahead of Illinois right now. Two or three wins against that group will be a chore. But a doable one.

Haves and have nots

Mention attendance issues at many Big Ten schools and officials will give you a blank stare. What problem?

The nation’s three biggest average crowds in 2018 belonged to the Big Ten: Michigan (110,737), Penn State (105,485) and Ohio State (101,947) led the way. A fourth Big Ten school, Nebraska, came in 10th with 89,034. Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa were all in the Top 21.

If college football popularity is experiencing a downturn, the upper half of the Big Ten has not felt the pain.

Only the SEC averaged more fans than the Big Ten. College football is big business in the South.

Despite the best efforts of Alabama, Georgia, Florida and friends, the SEC lost a few fans in 2018. About 1,000 per game. The drop was about 850 in the Big Ten. The Big 12 and ACC actually saw attendance rise.

Overall, the FBS drew 33.8 million fans in 2018, off 599 per game.

No reason to panic. Or reduce the size of the buildings. Just don’t take the fans for granted and remember they are a big part of the reason the sport is so popular on television. Watching games at half-filled stadiums is a turnoff.

Illinois checked in at 36,151 for six home games. In the same neighborhood as Indiana (40,965), Maryland (33,594), Minnesota (37,915), Rutgers (37,799) and Northwestern (43,873).

A neighborhood Illinois wants to leave. Trying to move on up with Purdue (51,120).

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

College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).