Alright, let’s just get this out of the way now. I’ve been a bad beat writer. My South Dakota State preview column will only ever exist as a half-completed Word document on my computer, and my recap looked something like this: “Illinois crushed a really bad team, and I’m not sure what we can learn from it.” My attempt at writing a preview column for the Arizona State game was thwarted by an unexpectedly zealous attempt by my professor to include everyone in a discussion on the merits of qualitative vs. quantitative research, thus infringing on my scheduled writing time.
But hey, it’s gameday, and we can leave that behind us, because in about six hours, Illinois will be playing a ranked, nonconference opponent in Memorial Stadium for the first time since defeating Louisville in 2001.
Here’s something to chew on: since Ron Zook took over in 2005, the Illini are 3-18 against AP ranked opponents, with all three victories coming in the 2007 Rose Bowl season. Our last win against a ranked team? The epic fall of the top-ranked Buckeyes in Columbus.
This Arizona State (#22 AP, #18 Coaches/USA) game has evolved into something bigger than a matchup against a pretty good Pac-12 team. It’s an opportunity to reverse a culture of losing. It’s a chance to prove to Illini nation that it’s safe to get excited. Win tonight, and you’re realistically heading into the Big Ten home-opener against Northwestern at 4-0. One game at a time, I know, but it’s fun to think about.
Honestly, I’m not sure what we can learn from the 2-0 start. We beat two inferior teams, and we did it pretty easily. I think there’s reason to believe the offense is really good, but, for me, I’m not convinced the defense will be good enough to stop people.
And that’s why this game is so compelling. We’re going to learn what the 2011 Illini are all about.
I grabbed dinner with some friends last night, and I couldn’t believe the amount of Arizona State fans milling around campus. It was such an intriguing sight that I stopped a middle-aged couple, both decked out in ASU apparel, to ask if they had come all the way from Arizona for the game. “Yeah,” they said. “ASU charted a plane to bring as many fans out here as they could.” Let’s hope that flight home won’t be a fun one.
Prediction: Illinois 30, Arizona State 27.