A national college football writer friend called last week with a fun question for his Florida-based radio show:
If the expanded, 12-team playoff were starting this year, and not in 2024, should Illinois be included among the teams that could make the field?
Reflexively, a little laugh came in response. Illinois? The one in Champaign? The one that hasn’t cracked the top 12 in the AP poll since 2001?
But then, aren’t there always a few surprises? Under the expanded format, three teams that were unranked at the start of the 2022 season — TCU, Tennessee and Kansas State — would have crashed the playoff party. Likewise, in 2021, Baylor, Michigan State and Pittsburgh would have done so.
So, OK, this year’s Illini? Sure, it’s fathomable.
Coach Bret Bielema was at Guaranteed Rate Field for the first time the other day, a perfect opportunity to put the question to him.
If he let out a laugh, it was imperceptible. Instead, he shook his head up and down.
“I remember when the whole transition came to the College Football Playoff, there were articles at the time that said three of my seven Wisconsin teams probably would have made the playoffs,” Bielema said. “That kind of just made me really start thinking. We were an 8-5 team last year that lost five games by one score or less and could have flipped four or five of them, including Michigan.”
That’s not true, technically. Mississippi State beat Illinois 19-10 in the ReliaQuest Bowl, though the Bulldogs scored on a 60-yard fumble return on the game’s final play.
It’s also an overstatement of how close the Illini were to a great season. Yes, they could have beaten Indiana — and mighty Michigan — but the 23-20 defeat in Bloomington was a bad one. They were outplayed by Michigan State and Purdue and deserved both those losses. The bowl performance was, even with some key players having opted out, kind of a clunker.
So, again, 2023?
“You know what?” Bielema said. “I like where we’re headed.”
It’s expected the Big Ten will do away with its current divisional format when USC and UCLA join the conference in 2024. That gives Bielema, in his third season at Illinois, one more shot to win the West.
“When I knew we had one more year of divisional play,” he said, “I was so excited.”
There won’t be — or shouldn’t be, anyway — a clear favorite in the West. Defending champ Purdue was little more than an interloper. New coach Luke Fickell has Wisconsin fans excited, but installing an “Air Raid”-style offense in Madison won’t be easy. Iowa is on eggshells, with Kirk Ferentz under heavy criticism for sticking with son Brian as offensive coordinator. Minnesota still hasn’t reached a Big Ten title game. Nebraska and Northwestern are starting from the bottom.
Illinois hasn’t made it to Indy for the title game, either, and hasn’t won more than eight games since 2007, when Ron Zook had it going. But Bielema has the arrow pointed up, he’s certain. It’s just that there remains a good bit of “up” to go.
“Physically, we’re getting there,” he said, “but we don’t have enough of us there. I look at the roster all the time and draw lines under all the guys at each position, like, ‘OK, I can win with this guy; this guy and that guy can win Big Ten games.’ That depth at certain positions is good enough. At others, it’s still scary thin. But that’s what the [transfer] portal is for. That’s what we recruit and develop for. We don’t have the roster yet that I fully want, but we’re getting there. We’re closer now than we’ve ever been.”
This time a year ago, Bielema already was telling his players the October stretch against Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota would tell the tale of the 2022 season. Indeed, the Illini went 3-0 against those rivals, an enormous development.
Now, he’s all about the first three games out of the gate in September: at home against defending MAC champ Toledo, at vastly improved Kansas and back at Memorial Stadium against potential top 10 foe Penn State. Bielema is putting the onus on both lines — the star-studded defensive one and what he believes is an underrated offensive one — to power a successful start.
No longer are the Illini pushovers — not even close — but they’re still on the wrong side of the divide that separates the really good from the pretty good. The same might be said of Bielema, whose teams at Wisconsin and Arkansas had their share of troubles in the finishing department. A lot comes down to knowing how to close games out.
Working for Bill Belichick with the Patriots before getting another crack at college football at Illinois, Bielema regarded that as an epiphany.
“The biggest thing I took away from my time with Bill is that more games are lost than won,” he said. “You get in a certain position and you’re a team that’s maybe having an off day, you’ve just got to survive that moment — got to refuse to lose — because the other team doesn’t know how to do it.
“The program I took over at Illinois, they didn’t know how to win. Now, I think they know how to win it. We’ve just got to understand that we can’t lose it.”