Illinois may be 16th in the CFP, but the Illini control their Playoff fate
Welcome to the party, Illinois.
For the first time ever, Fighting Illini fans saw their team in the College Football Playoff rankings Tuesday night as Illinois checked in at No. 16 in 2022’s initial CFP rankings. But that joy may have just as quickly turned into dismay when 6-2 Penn State was unveiled at No. 15 ahead of the 7-1 Illini.
“The Big Ten East bias is real!” someone at Kam’s may well have shouted.
And really, it seems like pure dumb luck that the Nittany Lions are ranked ahead of the Illini at the moment. Penn State’s losses, respectively, are to No. 2 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan. And if it turns out those are the only teams Penn State loses to this season, then the Nittany Lions are likely something considerably better than 15th in the country.
But there’s also no need for Illini fans to fret over that scenario. Illinois controls its College Football Playoff destiny. Penn State is already out of the race entirely. If both teams win out, the Nittany Lions will be a distant afterthought to the Illini.
Few teams can enhance their resume like Illinois
There are 4 SEC teams in the initial CFP top 10. But none of those teams has the ability to do what Illinois can: beat 2 teams currently in the top 5.
No. 7 Alabama has already lost to Tennessee. The best the Crimson Tide can manage is either a rematch with the Vols or a meeting with No. 3 Georgia in the SEC title game.
The Bulldogs and Volunteers play each other this weekend. After that, the winner shouldn’t be challenged before reaching Atlanta.
But Illinois has the potential to face both No. 5 Michigan and No. 2 Ohio State before the CFP field is set.
The Illini travel to Michigan on Nov. 22. Illinois will be an overwhelming underdog. But Michigan didn’t exactly overpower Iowa, which has an Illinois-caliber defense and a far worse offense. An Illinois win wouldn’t be the craziest thing that’s ever happened in the Big Ten.
If Illinois makes it through that gauntlet, the potential to face Ohio State in the Big Ten title game looms as likely. The Buckeyes would have to beat Michigan in the season finale to solidify that matchup.
That would set up a Big Ten championship game where the winner is all but assured a place in the College Football Playoff. And if Illinois were to win, we might finally see a CFP that allows 2 Big Ten teams into the field.
Obviously, this is an extremely ambitious sequence of events to contemplate. Particularly for a fan base whose preseason aspirations likely peaked with a Guaranteed Rate Bowl appearance.
But there is a very real possibility of Illinois finishing the regular season with the best 1-loss resume in the country. With that 1 loss coming to Indiana.
Illini can’t get jumped running the table
Looking at the teams ranked below Illinois, only 1 can still realistically consider itself a CFP contender: No. 17 North Carolina.
But the Tar Heels best potential remaining win would be against No. 4 Clemson in the ACC championship game. That wouldn’t be enough to jump a 12-1 Illinois team that has either beaten Michigan and Ohio State. (Or the Wolverines twice, which is probably the craziest possibility of them all).
Consider it revenge for the 2005 men’s basketball national championship game, if it comes down to that unlikely outcome.
No matter the outcome, it’s fun to be here
We’re putting a lot of carts ahead of a lot of horses here. The matter of simply winning the Big Ten West is far from decided.
In 2 weeks, Illinois hosts Purdue in the biggest game at Memorial Stadium in more than 30 years. (All of the Illini’s key wins in 2001 and ’07 were road games.) If Illinois loses that game, the West would likely be in the Boilermakers’ hands.
Presuming the Illini and Boilers both win this weekend, Purdue would pull even with Illinois in the conference standings and gain a tiebreaker. And while Illinois is visiting Michigan, Purdue gets the pleasure of hosting Northwestern.
By the end of November, it may seem silly that the idea of Illinois reaching the CFP was even contemplated at the start of the month.
But the fact any of us are contemplating it is why Illinois is currently the most fun story in college football. The Illini are proving to have more staying power than the nation’s brief September fling with Kansas.
After a decade-plus without a winning season, Illinois fans deserve every moment of joy this season is providing.
Maybe it’s only a couple more weeks. Perhaps it lasts all the way into December.
And thanks to their schedule, the Illini could even do the unthinkable and stretch that joy all the way to January.