It is 983 miles from the Illinois campus to UConn in Storrs. Not exactly natural rivals.
So why are the Huskies and the Illini playing a football game for the first time in school history?
Jason Lener has the answer. The Illinois senior associate athletic director helped set up Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. kickoff. And many of the other nonconference games on the Illini schedule.
When the Big Ten decided to go from eight to nine conference games in 2016, it created challenges for the school.
The Big Ten also asked league schools to schedule one home-and-home nonconference game against another Power 5 program.
Normally, that wouldn’t include UConn, which is playing its final season in the American before becoming an independent. But the Big Ten allowed exceptions for games against UConn, South Florida and others.
Scheduling UConn puts a fresh face on the Illinois schedule.
The idea of playing a new opponent has appeal.
“It was intriguing to both schools,” Lener said, “and we were able to get it done pretty quickly.”
UConn gets a double dose of the Big Ten this season, playing at Indiana on Sept. 21. The Huskies return the game to Champaign on Sept. 12, 2020.
Usually, the schedules are done years in advance. That’s a sharp contrast to college basketball, which pieces schedules together yearly.
Illinois doesn’t have another nonconference football opening until 2027. Lener is working on the end of the ’20s, with more future schedule announcements possible later this year.
“It’s one of those things that if you’re not scheduling, you’re getting behind,” Lener said. “Sometimes, we wait for the Big Ten schedule to come out.”
Lener knows which teams are available in ’27, ’28, ’29 and ’30.
A scheduling website called Gridiron, run by longtime ESPN executive Dave Brown, helps out.
“I can go on there and for the weeks that we need games, I can print off every team that is available,” Lener said.
Lener and Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman go over the lists and come up with a set of teams to pursue.
Once a tentative deal is reached, contracts are sent off. Then, Lener works on the next vacancy.
One problem for a scheduler is you never know what will happen to your opponent in the future. Good or bad. Pity the schools that scheduled UCF a few years back, not knowing the Knights were about to become a power.
“It’s complicated,” Lener said. “When you are scheduling teams in 2019 for 2027 and ’28, you don’t know how you’re going to be. You don’t know how they’re going to be. You want your team to be in a competitive situation. We want to schedule teams that are going to excite our fans.”
The bottom line in scheduling: Do what is best for your football program.
It’s a moving target.
“If you’re in a rebuilding stage, you want to schedule teams that are going to give you a chance,” Lener said. “No matter who you are playing, the greatest confidence boost for building a team and building a program is winning football games.”
This year, the Illinois nonconference schedule works well for a building program. Akron has a new coach. UConn is coming off a 1-11 season. Eastern Michigan lost several key players from a 2018 bowl team.
To those who question the Illinois schedule, Lener reminds “anybody can beat anybody.” He has the perfect example from the opening week, with Georgia State stunning Tennessee at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.
“I don’t think you can take anybody for granted,” Lener said.
Illinois tries to schedule teams in the region. That’s why there are six MAC teams set to play in Champaign during the next seven seasons.
“It’s tough for me to get someone from the south to come up and play here,” Lener said. “Now, they’ve got to get on an airplane when they can just get on a bus and play LSU or go play Clemson or go play Alabama.”
Every fourth year, Illinois plays an FCS program. Illinois State is next in 2020.
Illinois made a smart decision years ago to play schools from the state. That means a rotation of Eastern Illinois, Illinois State, Southern Illinois and Western Illinois. Good to keep the money at home.
Prices for the non-returned games continue to climb. A lot. Right now, the most expensive future matchup is Western Michigan, which will be paid $1.5 million in 2025.
“It’s rising,” Lener said. “You just don’t know where the market will be. Other schools are paying $1.9 million for guarantee games. It’s crazy where the market has gone.”
Schools packing 100,000 into their stadiums each week can afford to pay more. Illinois doesn’t have that luxury.
Of course, Lovie Smith has an opinion on nonconference scheduling. His team will be the one playing the games.
“In an ideal world, in a four-year period of time, I’d like for the guys to see as much of the United States as possible,” Smith said.
So, UConn checks off the East Coast box.
“Most of our guys have not been to Connecticut,” he said. “I haven’t spent a lot of time up in that area of the country. So this is a good trip for all of us.”
No sightseeing is planned. No stops at Fort Griswold, Gillette Castle or Lake Compounce, the nation’s oldest continuously operating amusement park.
“This is a business trip,” Smith said. “It doesn’t really matter whether we were going down to Illinois State to play or going overseas to play. It’s the same thing.”
Smith preaches routine. Fly to the game, play the game, leave immediately after the game.
In 2017, Smith took the Illini to Tampa, Fla., for a game against South Florida. Another box checked.
Recruiting plays a part in scheduling.
“I’d like for us to get to every recruiting area one time,” Smith said. “Texas would be good, Florida would be good. As a general rule, you start with that.”
The games on the current schedule and in the next few seasons were set years ago, well before Smith arrived at Illinois in March 2016.
When Lener and Whitman consider future matchups, Smith weighs in.
“Josh knows my opinion on scheduling,” Smith said. “I’m not really a look too far into the future kind of guy. Who we play 10 years from now, I haven’t really gotten into that too much. I trust our administration to lead us in the right direction.”
The coach is thrilled with an upcoming four-game series that runs from 2026 to 2029. Against a team from across the border.
“To me, the University of Illinois and Mizzou should play,” Smith said. “It’s a great game, basketball and everything else.”
Other nearby teams are out there that Smith wants to play. Without naming names.
“Where it’s easy for the fans,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of great programs around. I’d always be in favor of that.”
How about long trips across the country? Not so much.
“If you don’t have to,” Smith said, “I don’t want to.”
During past administrations, Illinois often looked to the west for nonconference games. In my 30 years covering Illinois football, the team has played at Southern Cal, Colorado, Arizona, Oregon, Washington State, San Diego State, Cal, UCLA, Arizona State, Washington and Fresno State.
“I can understand going out west because of our alumni base out west,” Smith said.
The Big Ten plays nine conference games. Meaning just three openings for the nonconference schedule.
“We play a tremendous Big Ten schedule,” Lener said. “You want to position your team to be successful. You’re not going to schedule Alabama, LSU and Clemson. You’ve got to do what makes sense.”
The Big 12 and Pac-12 also play nine-game conference schedules. The ACC and SEC play eight.
“It gives a lot of other teams better flexibility when you have four that you’re dealing with,” Smith said. “We’re at a disadvantage a little bit with that. But the advantages outweigh that one thing.”
Smith understands the desire of fans to see quality opponents.
“Going forward, I’m in favor of the best possible matchup,” Smith said. “But when you have nine conference games, it’s built in very good teams are coming in. The Big Ten takes care of itself a little bit.”
Let’s say Whitman came to Smith and said, “We’ve got a chance to play Alabama down the road.” Would Smith “go for it?”
“When we get our program in a position where we’re competing like that every year,” Smith said, “absolutely.”
The Illinois football team completes its 2019 nonconference schedule with games at UConn (Saturday) and against Eastern Michigan (Sept. 14). Here’s what is on tap in future seasons, with beat writer BOB ASMUSSEN tracking down the costs for each game:
DATE, OPPONENT, COST
Aug. 31 vs. Akron $1.1 million
Sept. 7 at UConn $200,000
Sept. 14 vs. Eastern Michigan $1 million
Sept. 5 vs. Illinois State $450,000
Sept. 12 vs. UConn $200,000
Sept. 19 vs. Bowling Green $1 million
Sept. 4 vs. UTSA $1.1 million
Sept. 11 at Virginia $200,000
Oct. 2 vs. Charlotte $1.2 million
Sept. 10 vs. Virginia $200,000
Sept. 17 vs. Wyoming $1.1 million
Sept. 24 vs. Chattanooga $485,000
Sept. 2 vs. Toledo $1.4 million
Sept. 9 at Kansas $200,000
Sept. 23 vs. Florida Atlantic $1.2 million
Sept. 7 vs. Kansas $200,000
Sept. 14 vs. Central Michigan $1.4 million
Sept. 21 vs. Eastern Illinois $500,000
Sept. 6 at Duke $250,000
Sept. 13 vs. Ohio $1.45 million
Sept. 20 vs. Western Michigan $1.5 million
Sept. 12 vs. Duke $250,000
Sept. 19 vs. Southern Illinois $525,000
Sept. 26 vs. Missouri No guarantee
Sept. 18 at Missouri No guarantee
Sept. 16 vs. Missouri No guarantee
Sept. 15 at Missouri No guarantee
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at email@example.com.