Illinois_UConn_Football_42049.

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith, center, looks up at the scoreboard during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in East Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)Illinois head coach Lovie Smith, center, looks up at the scoreboard during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in East Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Listen to this article

Let’s play a version of my favorite game: What if?

What if ... the Illinois defense stood its ground in the final minutes last Saturday against Eastern Michigan? Instead of a winning field goal, the Eagles would have run out of time. And, perhaps, Brandon Peters would have led his team on a scoring drive. His previous two possessions ended with Illinois touchdowns.

An Illinois win would have meant the first 3-0 start in eight years. And put Lovie Smith’s team on the minds of Top 25 voters. I know because I asked.

What if ... Nebraska hadn’t let a 17-point lead slip away at Colorado? Scott Frost’s guys had a huge following in Boulder, which is just three hours from Scottsbluff, Neb., and the western part of the state. All of that support helped to push the Cornhuskers toward a big early lead.

Alas, the Buffaloes rallied for a 34-31 overtime victory.

Colorado must have used up all its energy against Nebraska. The next week, it lost at home to Air Force.

With a 3-0 record, Nebraska would have walked into Memorial Stadium on Saturday night with solid place in the Top 25. This week, despite a nice bounceback win against Northern Illinois, Nebraska got no votes in The AP poll and a measly four from the coaches.

Before two very disappointing losses for Illinois and Nebraska, Saturday’s matchup had the potential to be a game-changer for both programs.

Illinois, under fourth-year coach Lovie Smith, is trying to advance to the next level. Time is running out. Smith was given a contract extension Nov. 25, but he needs to start beating teams considered better than his own.

Like Nebraska.

The Cornhuskers have gone two years without a bowl bid. That’s a big deal at a place that has filled its stadium since the year after I was born (1962) and has five national championships in that span.

Frost is supposed to be the savior, and he very well might be. A former quarterback for legend Tom Osborne, he led the team to the national title in 1997.

Nebraskans desperately wanted him back in Lincoln after he coached UCF to a shocking perfect season in 2017. Athletic director Bill Moos got it done.

Unfortunately for Frost, he inherited a mess in Lincoln. One that couldn’t be cleaned up with a year or two of strong recruiting. He went 4-8 his first season.

Nebraskans will be patient with Frost. That’s their nature. They don’t expect him to compete for a national title in his second season. But they would like him to be competitive in the Big Ten.

Media types got ahead of themselves this summer, picking Nebraska to win the Big Ten West. I didn’t buy it because the jump to the top seemed just a bit much. A step or two a time. You can’t rush a rebuild.

Chance to shine

Of course, Smith wanted to start 3-0. He expected to start 3-0. It didn’t happen.

He doesn’t consider 2-1 the end of the world, and he’s got a point.

Smith has moved on from Eastern Michigan.

“What game is that?” Smith said. “Nebraska red, that’s what I see right now. I asked our team to do the same thing. Just like we’re not going to look back to the win at UConn. We’re not going to look back to the win against Akron. It’s about this week.”

There are nine games left in the season. The non-league games are nice and all. They just don’t mean as much as conference play.

For Illinois to end a five-year bowl-less streak, it will have to win four conference games. Getting the first one against Nebraska is, well, a must.

“We’ve been building,” Smith said. “Big Ten play starts right now. The opportunity to start off in first place in our division, that’s huge. A home conference game, Hall of Fame weekend. There is so much riding on this football game.

“We’ve been wanting this moment right here. So, this is a big game for our football program, absolutely.”

Big wins have mostly eluded Smith is his three-plus seasons. His victories came against FCS Murray State, Rutgers (twice), Michigan State, Ball State, Western Kentucky, Kent State, FCS Western Illinois, Minnesota, Akron and UConn. Not a lot of sizzle.

Smith thinks his team is ready for a breakout win. Beating Nebraska at home in primetime counts.

“It doesn’t really matter if the week before is good or is bad,” Smith said. “It’s about you preparing for that next week. You’ve got to play your best ball.”

Smith has watched flashes of “best ball” the first three weeks.

“I’ve seen our team come back from double-digit deficits twice,” Smith said. “That’s an awful lot to have to do.”

Smith knows what is coming after Nebraska, win or lose: an open week. A chance for the players to heal up before the first Big Ten road game on Oct. 5 at Minnesota.

“The guys know the schedule,” Smith said. “We’re not going to talk about the bye week. Who are you getting ready for in the bye week? No one.

“Every week, you should lay it on the line. But knowing that there is a little bit longer recovery on the other end, if you need a little bit more motivation, that is definitely the case. You always want to go into a bye week on a high.”

Stars in the air, on the field

Smith doesn’t mind playing at night.

“It gives us more time to prepare, to get our minds ready for the game,” Smith said. “Where night games hurt you is you are behind on your preparation for the next week. Us having a bye week, it’s just a perfect schedule.”

Nebraska is part of a critical five-game stretch for the Illini. After Minnesota, there are home games against Michigan and Wisconsin and a trip to Purdue. Illinois figures to be an underdog in all five.

Maybe the Illini will be inspired by some of the special guests at the game. Twelve members of the 16-person Illinois Hall of Fame class will be on hand.

Football greats Bobby Mitchell, Simeon Rice and David Williams are among the honorees, along with late star J.C. Caroline.

“It’s a good time to be a part of the University of Illinois,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of excitement here. The Hall of Fame festivities, when you get a chance to acknowledge, recognize and honor people that have done so much for the program, that’s a big thing.”

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).