This Saturday, Memorial Stadium will host the University of Illinois’ 102nd Homecoming football game. Those in attendance will witness the battle of the bottom-dwellers, as Illinois (2-5, 0-3) will take on Indiana (2-5, 0-3) to determine which program will grab their first conference victory of the season. Unfortunately, and all too familiarly, the Fighting Illini are trying to crawl out of the Big Ten cellar, having gone winless in conference play dating back to October of 2011.
It’s been a tough year for first-year Illinois Head Coach Tim Beckman, whose overt off-season enthusiasm has proven to be more bark than bite. Granted, it takes multiple seasons to establish a winning college football program, but Illini Nation has begun to question whether Athletic Director Mike Thomas made the right move in bringing in the former Toledo Head Coach.
When Illinois got destroyed by Arizona State in the second week of the season, I think most Illini fans were surprised. When Illinois got embarrassed on their home field against Louisiana Tech, those feelings of surprise began to morph into frustration. Subsequent losses to Penn State, Wisconsin, and Michigan produced anger. And now, if Illinois loses to Indiana on Saturday, the dominant feeling from Illini fans might be apathy.
Illinois will need to play an uncharacteristically solid game to come out victorious over the Hoosiers. Indiana’s five losses this season have been by an average of 5 points, while Illinois’ five losses have been by an average of 29.8 points. Indiana’s schedule has been a bit less arduous than Illinois’, but the Hoosiers managed to compete with Michigan State (lost 31-27) and Ohio State (lost 52-49), which is more than Illinois has done in all five losses.
The funny thing about Illinois football is that expectations aren’t high. Consistently hit 6-7 victories, win a few bowl games, and occasionally put together a Big Ten title contender. The previous two seasons saw the Illini go 7-6, with back-to-back bowl victories for the first time in school history. Ron Zook was fired at the end of the 2011 campaign, primarily because he underachieved with teams loaded with NFL talent. But fans are beginning to wonder whether the change in leadership was a step in the right direction.
A season ago, 6-6 felt like the desert. Now, it’s looking more like the promised land. At this point, all Illini fans want is their team to be competitive – to take the field without being totally embarrassed. Unfortunately, that’s proven too much to ask.
I want to believe Illinois pulls off the win tomorrow, but I can’t picture it happening. Prediction: Indiana 31, Illinois 20.