An Illinois division title would be among the unlikeliest in college football history
Very little was expected of Illinois this season.
This is not unusual. The Illini hadn’t been ranked at all in 11 seasons, so what was going to make this year any different?
Voters in the cleveland.com Big Ten preseason poll seemed to give the Illini respect by simply thinking they’d be better than Northwestern. Barely.
To revisit the official predictions:
- Wisconsin (31 first-place votes) 246 points
- Iowa (3) 198
- Minnesota (2) 162
- Purdue 153
- Nebraska 123
- Illinois 65
- Northwestern 61
Not even Illini fans were aiming for anything more audacious than a bowl berth.
To cite a specific example, I’ll use my dad, who roots for Illinois. I was visiting home over the summer while working on our Crystal Ball season preview series.
His expectations, which often lean toward delusional optimism, immediately lowered upon inspecting Illinois’ schedule.
“Oh, Wyoming. They could be tough,” he mused in appreciation of former North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl.
And in his eyes, it didn’t get any easier from there.
“They could start 1-6,” he said with a laugh.
That was an actual, real quote. From an Illinois fan.
Which makes it all the more amusing and amazing that the Fighting Illini enter their second open week at 6-1. (Which, for the record, also exceeds my comparatively rosy prediction of 5-7.)
Illinois controls its destiny, giving itself a chance to become the least likely division winner in college football this season. Yes, even more unlikely than that other orange-clad division leader, Tennessee.
The Volunteers clearly had one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks in Hendon Hooker. They made a 4-win improvement in their first year under Josh Heupel. It was just a matter of how all the pieces would fit in and grow around Hooker.
Tennessee was picked a respectable third in the SEC East standings. And given that games still loom against Kentucky and Georgia, that very may well still be where the Vols end up.
Another surprising orange-clad team, Syracuse, is currently tied atop the ACC Atlantic standings. But we’ll revisit the unlikeliness of that concept should the Orange somehow beat Clemson this week. Illinois has a much more navigable path to a division title than Syracuse.
But you do need to stay in the ACC to find a division champ that matches 2022 Illinois on the shock scale.
If the Illini can finish this off, they would be the most surprising conference championship game representative from any Power 5 league since 2006.
2006 Wake Forest is Illinois’ only parallel
Wake Forest went into 2006 on the heels of 3 straight losing seasons and 2 bowl appearances in the previous decade. It had been 14 years since the Demon Deacons finished in the Top 25.
But those Demon Deacs managed to beat out a Matt Ryan-led Boston College, Maryland, Clemson and Florida State to win the ACC Atlantic. (And then beat Calvin Johnson’s Georgia Tech team in the ACC title game to earn an Orange Bowl berth.)
Illinois is breaking out of a similar dry patch. It’s nearly a carbon copy.
The Illini have been to 2 bowl games in the past decade. And are 15 years removed from the last season they finished in the Top 25.
But you could argue the 2022 Fighting Illini are even more out-of-nowhere than the ’06 Demon Deacons.
Despite those 3 losing seasons, Wake Forest was making incremental progress under coach Jim Grobe. Illinois is a whopping 11 years removed from the last season it finished with a record above .500.
Bret Bielema is not only the Big Ten coach of the year at this point, but should be considered a frontrunner for national coach of the year. Perhaps even the frontrunner.
Now Illini must finish what they’ve started
Illinois football history is filled with wild peaks and valleys, so in that regard this season is nothing new.
In 2006, the Illini went 2-10. The following season, Illinois went 9-3 and earned a trip to the Rose Bowl because Ohio State played in the BCS national championship game.
In 2000, the Illini finished 5-6. The next year, Ron Turner’s team went 10-1 and won the Big Ten.
But there’s something else those two teams shared in common.
Their most significant wins came on the road.
In 2001, Illinois’ lone loss was at Michigan. It beat ranked Purdue and Ohio State on the road on its road to the conference championship.
In 2007, Juice Williams led the Illini to an epic road win at Ohio State that eventually netted the program’s first Rose Bowl appearance since 1983.
That means Illinois’ Nov. 15 matchup against Purdue is poised to be the most significant game at Memorial Stadium in decades.
You’d likely have to go all the way back to Nov. 3, 1990, when Howard Griffith and the then-No. 5 Illini hosted No. 13 Iowa. And, if you’re an Illinois fan, hope for a much better outcome than that 54-28 loss.
If Illinois takes care of business against Nebraska and Michigan State, and Purdue does the same with Wisconsin and Iowa, both will enter the game 5-1 in the Big Ten.
If that’s how it shakes out, the stakes are massive for the Illini.
Illinois goes to Michigan the following week, so a loss to Purdue would make surpassing the Boilers quite unlikely. Purdue closes out with Northwestern and Indiana. (Though one must admit the possibility of Indiana’s only Big Ten wins coming against Illinois and Purdue is its own brand of amusing and amazing.)
The work is only halfway done on this version of a Fighting Illini dream season. But if Illinois completes its path to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game, it will be a Cinderella story the likes of which we’ve rarely seen.