EAST LANSING, Mich. — Covering Illinois football all these years, I have been surprised a few times.
I didn’t see the 1999 success coming. Six games in with the team 3-3 and on its way to Michigan, I was wondering how long Ron Turner would survive. Turns out, five more seasons.
Rocky Harvey’s two late touchdowns sealed a comeback win against Tom Brady that ranks among the most amazing in Illini football history.
Two years later, I was stunned when Illinois took the outright Big Ten title. While sitting on their couches the final day of the season. Illinois beat Northwestern on Thanksgiving Day, setting up Ohio State to knock off Michigan two days later.
The shame was Illinois couldn’t play in the Rose Bowl, which hosted the national title game that season. Instead, Illinois was sent to the Sugar Bowl against a virtual home team, LSU. It didn’t go well for Illinois, which lost 47-34 to Nick Saban at the Superdome. How has he done since?
To outsiders, the 2007 Illini had unexpected success. But I figured something special might be about to happen. In 2006, Illinois played close against good teams, falling short against No. 1 Ohio State, Wisconsin and Northwestern.
My colleagues at The News-Gazette remind me that I picked Illinois to win every game that season. True. And I was right nine times. The team wasn’t far from a perfect regular season, dropping close games to Missouri, Michigan and Iowa.
OK, I shouldn’t have picked the Illini against Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl in what turned out to be a 49-17 walkover by the Trojans. Giving me a bit of cover: The Southern Cal roster was loaded with future NFL players.
Can’t believe it has been 12 years since Ron Zook’s Illini reached the Rose Bowl. It feels more like 12 months.
That team set a standard that none since have been able to match. The most wins in any of the past 11 seasons was seven. It happened twice, in 2010 and 2011.
The current Illini have a chance to top it. But it will take two road wins, including Saturday at Michigan State and Nov. 23 at Iowa.
It will take a win against bitter rival Northwestern, which is in the middle of a way-down season.
And it will take a bowl victory, which is rare for Illinois. It has eight in 18 bowl appearances. Compare that to all-time leaders Alabama and Southern Cal, which have 41 and 34, respectively.
Lovie Smith’s 5-4 Illini could have taken two more games. Eastern Michigan won 34-31 on Sept. 14 on a late field goal after the Illini rallied to tie it at 31. A week later, Illinois led Nebraska by double digits in the second half before the Cornhuskers rallied for a 42-38 win.
Both Eastern Michigan and Nebraska have struggled since and are 4-5. If Illinois played them again now, it’s a good bet the earlier outcomes would be reversed.
Before the season started, College Football News predicted the records for every FBS school.
They nailed many of them. Alabama is well on its way past the projected 11.5. Same for Clemson (11.5) and Ohio State (10).
It undersold LSU, which will zoom past its projected nine victories. The flipside is Michigan (10.5), which is going to have a hard time getting close to that projection.
There are other underachievers in Jim Delany’s favorite conference. Like Northwestern (six projected wins), Michigan State (nine) and Nebraska (seven).
Three schools have outkicked their coverage. Or are the verge of doing so.
CFN expected Minnesota to win eight and the Gophers are already there. With four more games to go.
Illinois has matched its preseason projection of five wins with three left. And Indiana is smashing expectations with seven wins, two more than projected.
So, what’s the biggest story in the Big Ten this season? At least, so far?
Normally, you would say Ohio State, which is ranked No. 1 in the first College Football Playoff poll.
But we all knew the Buckeyes were loaded. The only real question was if Justin Fields could handle the quarterback duties. He can, currently sitting fourth in the nation in passing efficiency. He has a ridiculous 24-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Of course, his teammates are decent, too.
Other than Ohio State, here is my list of the top stories in the Big Ten. Remember, there are more games to play. The list could change in late November.
1. Minnesota — I criticize P.J. Fleck whenever possible. Despite his silly sayings and overexuberance, his team is playing well. The Gophers struggled in early games, but still managed to win. Those would have been losses under previous Minnesota coaches. The Gophers control their destiny in the Big Ten West. But they start a tricky stretch Saturday with a home game against Penn State. Then, they play at Iowa and Northwestern before closing at home against Wisconsin.
2. Penn State — When Trace McSorley left for the NFL, most figured the Nittany Lions would fall apart. Not so much. With Sean Clifford playing like, well, McSorley, the Nittany Lions are rolling. Like Minnesota, they will be challenged in the last month. Besides the Gophers, they play resurgent Indiana (see No. 3) and travel to Ohio State. If they win out and take the Big Ten title game, they will be in the CFP. Amazing.
3. Indiana — Tom Allen has folks at the basketball school interested in the oblong ball, too. Friendly early scheduling helped, with nonconference games against Ball State, Eastern Illinois and UConn. The Hoosiers’ only two losses came to Ohio State (blowout) and Michigan State (close). The final three are against Penn State, Michigan and Purdue. Worst case is a 1-2 finish and eight wins going into the bowl.
4. Illinois — With a chance to move up with a sweep of the final three games. The Illini are two-TD underdogs at Michigan State, and the number will be similar when they go to Iowa. If the team gets to a bowl, it will be considered a successful season. And have fans fired up going into 2020.