When it comes to the sports teams we follow, our first instinct should always be to lean toward optimism.
Of course, our heroes will win the big game. Or sign the best coach. Or land the top recruit.
We root while wearing the shade of glasses that match our teams. In the case of Illinois, that will be Orange and Blue.
No doubt, Illinois football fans have reasons for optimism. A new head coach with a winning background. A manageable 2021 schedule that doesn’t include Ohio State, Indiana or Michigan. An experienced roster. All good signs for Bret Bielema.
And recruiting seems to be going well. Especially in the state of Illinois, where until-recently-ignored high school coaches and players are interested again.
“Slowly, but surely,” respected recruiting analyst Tom Lemming told me Monday afternoon. “The key is always the second and third year. Constant attention to it and enough people behind the scenes that can relieve some of the pressures off the coaches. The head coach has to stay on top of things constantly.”
Wisely, Bielema has made the in-state players a priority. So far in the 13-man class of 2022, Illinois has seven players from within its borders.
Oswego East linebacker Jared Badie was the latest addition on Sunday morning, with the 6-foot-4, 202-pound Badie a three-star recruit.
Illinois is up to No. 35 in Rivals’ team rankings as of Monday afternoon, despite missing out on adding another in-state commit later on Sunday.
Johnston City safety Austin Brown, a four-star recruit who was considering the Illini, picked Bielema’s old school, Wisconsin, on Sunday afternoon.
Bielema’s coaching staff took a fishing trip to Johnston City in the spring, when the dead period was still in effect because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and rode in a charter bus with Illini logos and colors to get their message across about the priority that Brown was to them.
Alas, you can’t win all in-state recruiting battles, but more Illinois high school football players are likely bound for the Illini with this latest class.
Every time Illinois lands a top player from the state, it also denies outside schools (Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, etc.) from adding to their rosters.
I have always argued that in-state players have an extra level of motivation. They are competing close to home. Their families and friends follow their every move.
J Leman and Martin O’Donnell would have excelled wherever they played college football. But their passion for Illinois and their connections to the place helped push them to All-American status.
Ground to make upAs of Monday afternoon, the 2022 Illinois recruiting class is in the top 40 by both Rivals and 247sports.
Good news? Absolutely.
“This year, they’re doing well,” Lemming said. “They just have to maintain this for the next four years, and you’ll see Illinois back in the top half of the conference.”
Under Lovie Smith, the classes were ranked 48, 50, 73 and 90. One of the worst stretches of talent gathering at the school during the past four decades.
“It got much worse with Lovie,” Lemming said.
Bielema and his staff are making up ground in the state and elsewhere.
But there is a problem.
And not just that Big Ten power Ohio State is a solid No. 1 in both rankings (more on the Buckeyes later).
Let me put it in baseball terms.
Let’s say you are fan of the St. Louis Cardinals (good enough for Loren Tate ....). Right now, your favorites are trailing Milwaukee in the NL Central standings by 10 games.
Take aim at the Brewers and see what happens.
Unfortunately, the Reds and Cubs are also ahead of the Cardinals. So, while you are picking up ground on Milwaukee, you also have to jump over Cincinnati and Chicago.
At some point, there are simply too many teams to navigate.
Same is true in recruiting. Of course, the goal should be to pick off No. 1 Ohio State. But Illinois also has to consider No. 4 Penn State, No. 13 Rutgers, No. 14 Michigan, yada, yada, yada.
On the current Rivals team rankings, Illinois is tied for 11th among Big Ten schools. Maryland is also slotted in at No. 35 with Illinois, with Northwestern (No. 38), Iowa (No. 52) and Nebraska (No. 57) only trailing the Illini and Terrapins.
To be fair, it is very, very early, with more than five months remaining before the early-signing period. Schools have filled less than half of their classes. In November and December, the rankings could look a lot different.
The gold standardActually, one ranking figures to be the same when the early-signing period rolls around: Ohio State at No. 1.
Currently, 15 of the 16 Buckeye commits are rated four- or five-star recruits by Rivals. Ohio State’s 4.19 average rating is more than a half-point better than No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 3 Florida State.
Ryan Day’s program is lapping the field. And they just improved their ‘21 class, too.
On Sunday, Ohio State received a commitment from defensive lineman J.T. Tuimoloau, the No. 1 overall prospect in the country according to 247 and No. 6 by Rivals.
“It used to be the Big Two (Ohio State and Michigan) and the Little Eight,” Lemming said. “Now, it’s the Big One and the Little 13. They are right there with Alabama.”
The rich keep getting richer. Tuimoloau is expected to make an immediate impact, drawing comparisons to a string of recent Ohio State stars.
Illinois won’t have to worry about Tuimoloau for a few years. The teams don’t play again until 2024.
There was a time early in my N-G career when Illinois dominated Ohio State on the field. And did a decent job against the Buckeyes in recruiting, too.
John Mackovic and Lou Tepper won five in a row against the Buckeyes from 1988-92.
Now, the last Illinois win against Ohio State came 14 years ago, with the Illini 0-9 against the Buckeyes since Juice Williams and pals pulled off the stunning upset in 2007. The gap between the programs has widened.
Bielema and his staff aren’t likely to beat Ohio State for a recruit.
But they have to try. If you are recruiting against Ohio State, you are in good company.
The dynasty won’t last forever. Ask the Yankees, Celtics and, heck, even the Patriots.
Clemson wasn’t always Clemson. Alabama had some down years. And even Ohio State has taken a dip or two.
It is up to the other programs in the Big Ten — including Illinois — to be ready if it happens again.