I don’t know about you, but with the worst White Sox season since the millennium droning on (with Cubs fans becoming more and more insufferable since it’s hard to see them not backing into the NL Central championship) and the Bears in the midst of another week of questioning whether Rex Grossman can hold onto his balls (not to mention Lance Briggs’ driving skills), the start of the college football season couldn’t come soon enough. That means that it’s time to get on with the annual college football preview:
(1) Illini Are Bowling This Year… Seriously – OK, I know that I said the same thing last season, but it’s got to be our time to get to a lovely bowl destination such as Detroit. Even while taking account Ron Zook’s coaching ability (or lack thereof), there’s way too much talent on the Illinois squad this year to continue to be muddled with the traditional bottom-feeders of the Big Ten such as Indiana and Northwestern. The Big Ten isn’t as strong of a conference as it was a year ago, so I’ve got a good feeling that this club is going to do the proverbial snakebite on a lot of teams. The Illini are returning 20 starters plus adding blue chip superstar players on both offense (wide receiver Arrelious Benn) and defense (outside linebacker Martez Wilson). Meanwhile, Juice Williams can only improve on his 39.5 percent completion rate in his 2006 freshman campaign (right?) and senior J Leman heads up a stable defense.
Looking at the Illini schedule game-by-game, we’re set up to get to that magic .500 mark for bowl eligibility. This weekend brings the return of the football version of the Braggin’ Rights game when Illinois takes on Missouri at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. I think with this game we’ll find out right off the bat whether this is going to be a whirlwind season with a meteoric rise or one where we merely take some solid steps to get back into the upper half of the BCS echelon. If the Illini can beat Mizzou, who is the trendy pick to win the Big 12 North this season (which is akin to winning the National League Central this year – whoever is left standing at one or two games above .500 will promptly get slaughtered in the postseason), then I think we’re heading toward one of those wacky years where we perform way beyond expectations, such as 1999 when we beat both Michigan and Ohio State on the road. Even if we lose, though (which, in all rationality, I think we will), Illinois is going to still be in okay shape to go bowling. The home opener against Western Illinois is going to be a win, while I’m also fairly certain that the next two road games against a severely depleted Syracuse squad and a just-plain-awful Indiana team will be victories for the Illini. That’s halfway to the six-win bowl mark.
So, where are the last three victories going to come from? Penn State is going to be a tough one – we have a nasty habit of spotting them a point or 60 in the first half, so I don’t think it’s coming there. The Wisconsin game is one that I’m strangely confident about since we always seem to play the Badgers a bit better than expected. Still, Wisconsin is a team that is probably the 2nd-best team in the Big Ten this year after Michigan, so I doubt the upset will happen. Playing at Iowa City isn’t going to be great situation for a relatively young Illinois team, so I’ll chalk the Iowa game up as a loss for the Illini. The Michigan game is pretty much the focus of every Illinois fan this year since it’s set-up as a prime time ABC game at Memorial Stadium (which I can’t attend, as I explained in my last post), but I’m pretty much accustomed to getting my hopes completely crushed every time that we play the Wolverines (not to mention that I can’t see how Michigan isn’t getting at least a Rose Bowl berth this year, if not even better, as I’ll note later), so let’s put this as an Illini L. Next up, our athletic department was nice enough to pay Ball State to come to town so that we can finally win a homecoming game, leaving us with needing two more wins with three games to go. We can beat Minnesota even though it’s in the Hump Dome. Next up is Ohio State at the Horseshoe… we’ll just skip over that one. Getting Northwestern at home for the regular season finale, though, ought to be the clincher in spite of a pretty good Wildcats defense. That gets us to the magic six wins a nice trip dodging bullets in Detroit for the holidays. Honestly, the thought of a bowl game in the world’s worst tourist destination outside of Baghdad making me this excited shows you exactly how putrid the Illinois program has been in recent years. I’ll take anything at this point.
(2) Big Ten Final Standings Prediction – All of you know that the last thing that I want to do is give any praise to Michigan, but I’m fairly surprised that there’s not that much buzz about the Wolverines getting to the national championship game this season. Sure, they got pasted by USC in last year’s Rose Bowl and their top-ranked run defense has lost a lot of firepower, but the offense is going to be ridiculous with Chad Henne, Mike Hart, and Mario Manningham at the skill positions paired up with an NFL-ready offensive line. Michigan could very well be 10-0 by the second week in November, when they’ll then have back-to-back monster games against Wisconsin and, of course, Ohio State to at least decide who gets to the Rose Bowl, if not the national title game for the second year in a row. I’ll know this much – Lloyd Carr better have a Monster.com account in place if his team loses to the Buckeyes again. As for the rest of the upper echelon, Wisconsin will hold serve as the second-best team in conference while everyone needs to look out for Iowa – it’s as if though people have forgotten how dangerous Kirk Ferentz’s teams can be. Here are the projected conference standings: (1) Michigan, (2) Wisconsin, (3) Iowa, (4) Ohio State, (5) Penn State, (6) Purdue, (7) Illinois, (8) Michigan State, (9) Northwestern, (10) Minnesota, (11) Indiana.
(3) BCS Conference Champions Prediction – Nothing too wacky here, although the media continues to astound me with how it has anointed West Virginia as national championship contender yet again (#3 in the preseason AP poll). Here’s what I said about the Mountaineers last season: “[T]he worst argument that anyone can ever have to say that someone is a national championship contender is that the team has schedule akin to playing the runners-up from a sixth grade Punt, Pass, and Kick contest every week, which is what a number of prognosticators seem to be saying about Big East member West Virginia.” The exact same thing is being said about West Virginia this season, which leads me to believe that the team will suffer the exact same shortfall against Louisville to plummet them to a Motor City-type Bowl. The projected BCS champs: Big Ten – Michigan, SEC – LSU, ACC – Virginia Tech, Big 12 – Texas, Pac-10 – USC, Big East – Louisville.
(4) BCS Championship Game Prediction – I still have to chuckle every time that I hear the name “John David Booty” (heh-heh, Beavis), but let’s face it – the USC Trojans are the team to beat again. It’s coming down to a rematch of last year’s Rose Bowl in this year’s national championship game (for a virtual Rose Bowl with the Big Ten/Pac 10 matchup) with Michigan and USC. Unfortunately for Big Ten supporters such as myself, the result is going to end up being the same. Predicted national championship result: USC over Michigan.
Anyway, if the Illini end up beating Mizzou this weekend, we might be looking forward to something a lot better than Detroit over the holidays. Anyone up for a road trip to Toronto?