CHAMPAIGN — Three and 0.
For Illinois football the past five decades, it’s been more like three and oh, no.
Winning the first quarter of your games doesn’t seem like much of a chore. But it has been rare at Illinois the last half century. Happened just six times.
Bob Blackman did it once in six seasons. His 1974 team, led by Ty McMillin and Revie Sorey, beat Indiana, Stanford and Washington State on the way to a 6-4-1 finish. It was Blackman’s best record at Illinois.
The next 3-0 came in 1982, Mike White’s guys knocking off Northwestern, Michigan State and Syracuse on the way to a 7-5 finish. That team, led by Tony Eason, Mike Bass, Dan Gregus and Mike Martin, was the first to reach the postseason since the 1964 Rose Bowl winners.
White’s best team at Illinois, the 9-0 Big Ten champions in 1983, lost their opener at Missouri.
John Mackovic, who had four bowl teams before bolting to Texas, never started 3-0. Neither did his successor, Lou Tepper, who had the misfortune of opening his final two years against power Michigan. Thanks, Big Ten.
Ron Turner opened 3-0 in three consecutive seasons from 1999 to 2001. Two of those teams reached bowls and the third, Josh Whitman’s senior season in 2000, barely missed out. A late-season injury to star quarterback Kurt Kittner cost the 2000 team in its final two games against Ohio State and Northwestern and it finished 5-6.
Ron Zook had only one 3-0 start at Illinois and surprisingly it wasn’t the 2008 Rose Bowl team. Juice Williams, Rashard Mendenhall and pals lost the 2007 opener in St. Louis against Missouri.
In 2011, Nathan Scheelhaase, Whitney Mercilus, Trulon Henry and Jack Cornell beat Arkansas State, South Dakota State and Arizona State to kick off the season.
They kept winning, taking games against Western Michigan, Northwestern and Indiana.
Then, they started losing. Six in a row, including close games against Ohio State, Purdue and Penn State. The school fired Zook after the regular season and the coach watched from afar as the team beat UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
Now that Akron and UConn are in the books, Illinois coach Lovie Smith can consider the possibilities. A milepost is within reach.
“To finish up the nonconference schedule with a 3-0 record is exactly where we want to be,” Smith said. “That’s been one of our goals, to go through a nonconference schedule 3-0. So, that’s why this game is so important.”
Eastern Michigan is 1-1, coming off a loss at Kentucky. The Eagles went to a bowl in 2018 and two in the last three years. Illinois hasn’t reached the postseason since 2014.
“We’re excited about coming back home,” Smith said. “Our guys know how important it is to eliminate mistakes early on and get yourself in position to play your best ball. I know that’s what we’ll do this week.”
Illinois’ win at UConn was its first nonconference road victory in 12 years. Nice to end a drought. Not that Smith was worried about it.
Same goes for the lack of 3-0 starts. Smith is responsible for just the past three seasons.
Win Saturday and he won’t have to hear about it again.
“It’s about winning the next game always,” Smith said. “But if you look at the big picture coming in, you come out of the nonconference schedule, you need to be 3-0 going into Big Ten play.
“Now, you can concentrate on that. You don’t talk about 3-0 until you’re lucky enough to get to 2-0.”
In a normal year, playing a MAC school in September might not register as a big deal. This one is different.
Smith called it “a huge game for us in our program. We’ve made strides, but we need to be able to take up the next notch.”
The Illinois nonconference schedule is short on name opponents. No Power 5 schools. Two teams from the MAC and one from the American.
Don’t try to tell Smith it lacks challenges.
“Being around football, you know how hard it is,” Smith said.
Smith isn’t worried about Illinois’ past failures to reach 3-0. He wasn’t here.
“I don’t get into any of those things because they don’t have anything to do with this football team,” Smith said.
Going forward, Smith hopes to sweep the nonconference games every season.
“Last year, we had a great opportunity to go 3-0 and had USF down double digits in the fourth quarter,” Smith said. “We’ve been in this position before. Our program has grown an awful lot. But now we need to put it on paper by getting a win against a good team.”
What would 3-0 mean for the Illini in terms of national recognition?
I did a quick survey of AP Top 25 voters, which I’m a part of, and asked them, “What will it take for Illinois to be considered?”
“If the Illini were to beat Eastern Michigan and Nebraska, they would surely be on my radar,” said Tom Murphy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “And if they followed with a win at Minnesota to go to 5-0, I would think they’d get on my ballot.
“A good team for reference, I think, is 2-0 Colorado, which already has a win over Nebraska, and did not make my ballot last week. The Buffs are in my grouping of teams under consideration this week.”
If Illinois knocks off both Eastern Michigan and Nebraska, it will get the voters’ attention.
“I would have a hard time considering Illinois for a Top 25 vote until and unless they beat Nebraska to become 4-0,” said Nathan Baird of Cleveland.com. “Beating bad-to-adequate MAC teams does not a Top 25 resume make. However, it is also worth noting I have not voted for Nebraska on my first two ballots since taking over Cleveland.com’s vote. A 4-0 start would put Illinois in the conversation, perhaps, but they need to do what Maryland just did at Syracuse and beat the Cornhuskers emphatically. A lot of teams could be 4-0 — what will set Illinois apart?”
A 4-0 start appears to be the key.
“Although I couldn’t automatically say if they would be in or not,” Stadium’s Brett McMurphy said. “All depends on what the other teams that I’m considering have done.”
The voters have their own criteria. A Top 25 team to one person might not be to the next.
“I’ll definitely keep an eye on them this week,” said Ryan Aber of The Oklahoman. “There’s a chance they could get there if they blow out Eastern Michigan and there’s plenty of other mayhem this weekend, but it’d likely take a win this weekend and at home against Nebraska to move into the Top 25. I try to re-evaluate the totality of my poll week-to-week, especially after we get three or four (or more) weeks of results to work with.”
Adam Zucker of CBS also needs more convincing on Illinois.
“Consider it? Be 4-0 and look good doing it,” Zucker said. “It would depend on other teams’ losses, but I’d be unlikely to put a number next to them unless they’re 5-0 and then they’d have Michigan, which would seal it if they pulled it off.”
Smith entered the year 9-27 at Illinois and the team hasn’t had a winning record since 2011. That’s a factor for voters.
“Given their recent history, I think Illinois has to show more than some other teams that have a good track record,” said Brian Howell of Buffzone.com. “None of the first three games really do much to get my attention. Beat Nebraska and maybe they get some attention, but that still makes Illinois’ best win coming against a 2-2 team, at best (and a team that was 4-8 last year). So, I doubt I’d put them in there even at 4-0 — but that would put them on my radar.
“Win at Minnesota to go to 5-0 and they might earn a spot. There won’t be many 5-0 teams at that point in the season, and I think a 5-0 start would get them into the Top 25 (or close to it). Those next two weeks — Michigan and Wisconsin — will let us know if they belong.”
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at email@example.com.