One of the legends of college football, Dick Butkus, is coming back to town for the unveiling of George Lundeen’s beautiful 12-foot statue. Thank goodness the school got the tribute completed while the great one — he’s 76 years old, but could probably help out this year’s Illinois defense — can enjoy it.
You know he’s going to cry like Steve Stricker after a win. And make fun of himself for the waterworks.
Want more reasons for anticipation? Here you go.
College football’s winningest program, Michigan, visits Memorial Stadium for the first time in eight seasons. It’s almost 95 years to the date that Red Grange torched the Wolverines in the dedication game at the same building. Red’s got a statue, too.
The much-anticipated Illini men’s basketball team has an open practice and media day on Friday at Ubben.
Illinois volleyball is playing well and hosts Indiana next Saturday night at Huff Hall. The weather is back to fall-like. Life is good.
In the middle of all this joy sits a 2-3 Illinois football team that appears on the way to 2-5. And maybe even 2-10.
When fans, coaches, players and media looked at the schedule before the season, they saw different potential outcomes. The optimists figured 5-0 was possible, 4-1 was doable and 3-2 was likely.
I predicted a 3-0 start, which was foiled by Eastern Michigan. Note that the Eagles dropped to 3-2 Saturday with a blowout 42-16 loss at Central Michigan. Eastern Michigan is not going to repeat Western Michigan’s spectacular run during the P.J. Fleck era.
Time to panic?
Not quite. The next two games are likely going in the right-hand column, but there are winnable games remaining against Rutgers, Purdue and Northwestern.
But even if the Illini win all three — far from a lock — they will be a game short of qualifying for the postseason.
And bottom line for this team, despite the usual summer talk of shocking the nation, is making it to a bowl. Illinois hasn’t been since 2014. It hasn’t won a bowl game since 2011. It’s getting to be a long time ago.
A year after the Illini pounded Minnesota at home, the Gophers appeared to have passed them back, with Minnesota going 8-1 in the subsequent nine games since last November’s beatdown in Champaign.
Unorthodox/annoying Fleck is recruiting hard and putting together a good staff. He has the fans in Minneapolis thinking big with him.
That sort of enthusiasm doesn’t exist for football in C-U. Not now. Not for a while.
The school has done all it can to help the program, including a fancy, new $80 million facility that is as good or better than any in the Big Ten. Buildings don’t win games. And talking to former players, they don’t necessarily help with recruits.
Winning helps. Or the threat of winning.
Sorry to go back to Ron Zook to illustrate my points, but he sold a dream to Juice Williams, Martez Wilson. Arrelious Benn and pals. Then, with a bit of swagger and a touch of luck, the team delivered on the promise.
That idea for the current program seems like too much of a reach.
The current condition is not all Lovie Smith’s doing. He inherited a listing program that had its share off-the-field issues.
Three coaches in three years from 2014-16. Where has that ever been a good thing?
Turnover at the top meant constant changes on the staff. The continuity they embrace at Iowa and Wisconsin hasn’t had a chance to take hold at Illinois.
The team has had its share of misfortune, too. None greater than the spring loss of Bobby Roundtree to a swimming accident. If healthy and playing, Roundtree would be starring for the current team. A squad already thin has been hit by injuries to key players. Tailback Mike Epstein had knee surgery and is out for the season. So is freshman cornerback Marquez Beason, who was in line to contribute before he suffered the same fate as Epstein.
The injury bug continued against Minnesota, with starting quarterback Brandon Peters leaving the game. We had talked several times about his reunion game with his old school, Michigan. Now, it is unclear if he will be able to go. We likely won’t find out until the 11 a.m. kickoff.
Whoever plays quarterback next Saturday faces a huge challenge. Michigan pounded Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley, and the Wolverines don’t figure to let up against the Illini.
Is the Illinois status of Big Ten bottom-dweller permanent? Is it fixable?
No and yes. There are too many examples of struggling teams finding their way.
It might take time.
For now, I suggest we all enjoy the weekend.