State of the Illini

I know of no truer and more effective antidote to Illini fever than losing winnable games.

Sitting at 6-0 heading into a home matchup against unranked Ohio State, Illinois gave up one pass completion…and lost.

Still in control of their own Big Ten destiny, Illinois traveled to West Lafayette and gave up 21 first half points, dropping their second game in as many weeks.

Brace yourself for this statement, because it feels weird to write – the Illini currently sit at a disappointing 6-2. Seriously, how many times can you remember being upset with a 6-2 record?

College football differentiates itself from most major sports in that the regular season functions as the playoffs. If you want a shot at the national championship, there’s very little time to figure things out – lose, and you’re basically done. Yeah, if you’re a decent team, you’ll still have the opportunity to play a postseason game, but for what? Other than the national championship, can we really consider any bowl game meaningful?

So, if you’re a good college football team, the goal is simple: win every game you play, and hope you have a shot to play for the national title. And until two weeks ago, Illinois had done just that – they had won all six of their games – and for me, that had been the most intriguing element to this Illini season – the fact that a chance to play for the national championship was within the realm of possibility. Was it likely? Absolutely not. But it was possible, and that’s a very rare place for Illinois to be. Like I’ve said before, the most talented team is not always the team that takes home the championship.

Psychologists talk a lot about schemas – mental frameworks that allow us to interpret information and make sense of our world. We might develop a schema for a guitar (six strings, made of wood, emits acoustic sound), or a chair (four legs, seat parallel to floor, back perpendicular to floor), or a classroom (whiteboard, projector, desks). What’s interesting is what we do when we observe information incongruent with our schemas – like an electric guitar in our guitar schema, a stool in our chair schema, or an auditorium in our classroom schema. We either ignore the information and categorize it as anomalous, or we alter our schemas to include the new information.

We constructed our schema for the 2011 Illini around their undefeated record, thus concluding that this is a team able to compete for the Big Ten title. Yeah, the flaws were there, but when you win, they tend to get overlooked. Then they went out and lost to Ohio State at home, and we took the shortcomings a little more seriously. And now, after a loss to a pretty mediocre Purdue team, the weaknesses are glaring, and we’re taking a long, hard, uncomfortable look.

So here’s how I’m adjusting my schema for the 2011 Illini – this is a talented team capable of beating any opponent on any given Saturday, but they’re deficient enough to lose games they should win. So from now on, I won’t be shocked or upset when they lose games to teams like Purdue, because they’re capable of doing just that – similar to the way I don’t get really confused when I walk into an auditorium for one of my classes.

Illinois having a special season – by that, I mean competing for the Big Ten title and playing in a high-profile bowl game – was a long shot, but it was possible. Now, the Illini will likely finish 7-5, with the only remaining victory coming against Minnesota. Could they finish 8-4? Yes. 9-3? Sure. But it’s not likely, and, based on the quality of football the Illini are playing, I won’t lose sleep if they don’t.

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