Until this past weekend, the Illinois football team had befuddled even its most ardent fans. Despite giving Missouri and Penn State competitive games on the road, Illinois had squeezed by Louisiana-Lafayette by an unexpectedly slim margin and built doubts in its supporters' minds with subpar defensive play.
A pervading question developed: would this season be a retreat in quality after last year's Rose Bowl squad, just as the 2002 team made a quick return to the cellar after the Sugar Bowl blowout the year before?
Thankfully, Saturday's 45-20 win over Michigan proved this team is a legitimate New Year's Day Bowl contender.
While this year's Michigan team isn't exactly a typical Michigan team, a few important factors require attention.
It's probably hard for non-Big Ten fans to understand the importance of winning at The Big House. Illinois and Michigan have a minor rivalry dating back to the 10s and 20s, when both schools were national powerhouses. For whatever reason, beating Ohio State over the years has come much easier for the Illini than beating Michigan.
The Illinois run defense played much better than expected. Illinois held Michigan to 2.0 yards per carry on the ground. Michigan was able to gain 5.1 against Wisconsin in the previous week's upset.
Putting Illinois' margin of victory in some context, Wisconsin lost to Michigan on the same field by two, and Utah beat them by only two. If we assume Michigan adapts to Rich Rodriguez' schemes more as the season progresses, Illinois' twenty-five point win looks far better by comparison.
In fact, it was the biggest win by a Michigan Stadium visitor in seventeen years.
The Illini defense finally showed up to play, made adjustments after a poor opening, and shut the Wolverines down in the second and third quarters.
The Illini offense had a game where all cylinders clicked and they were able to profit from both running and throwing the ball. Juice Williams had his second eye-popping Heisman-worthy game of the season, further establishing himself as a legitimate top quarterback in the conference and, looking towards next year, the nation.
Given that Illinois has played slightly above expectations thus far, one must ask themselves, then, why Illinois is not even ranked right now.
The Associated Press had Illinois ranked twentieth in their preseason poll.
The Illini have since lost to what are now number three and number six in the country, both effectively road games and neither by a blowout. Even Louisiana-Lafayette, the team Illinois squeaked by at home, has shown itself somewhat worthy with the number one rushing offense in the country in terms of yards per game.
For comparison's sake, Auburn is ranked twentieth currently. They've lost twice as well, to the number four team at home and the number thirteen team on the road.
While that alone doesn't quite seem right, Wisconsin received more votes than Illinois. Wisconsin lost to number twelve at home and lost to the same Michigan team Illinois pummeled.
Explain that one, and the BCS gods will give you a gold star.
Also ranked are a Ball State team who has beaten up on bottom feeders, a Wake Forest squad that lost to Navy at home, and a North Carolina team that lost to Virginia Tech at home.
Oklahoma State, Tulsa, Kansas, South Florida, Pittsburgh, Utah, Boise State—I have no reason to believe any of these teams would have done better with Illinois' schedule thus far than the Illini.
There's no shame in dropping two neutral/road games to probable top five teams.
There is in losing at home to non-contenders.
The message sent by the rankings-makers is that, simply put, a softer, unproven 4-0 team is better than a 2-2 team who has lost to only top-notch teams. Home and road don't really matter. Beating overrated Big East and ACC teams? That does, apparently.
While this concept is generally bad for college football, perhaps being underrated and under-appreciated can do the Illini some good. After all, it's a role they thrived in last year en route to the Rose Bowl.
Looking ahead, Illinois will be favored to win their next two games and looks to be 5-2 heading into Madison. Given Wisconsin's vulnerabilities this year, a rare win at Camp Randall is a greater possibility than usual.
At the very least, Illinois has three "tough" games left on the schedule: at Wisconsin, Ohio State at home, and at Northwestern. Should they win just one of these three and take care of business against Iowa, Minnesota, Western Michigan, and Indiana, the Illini look destined for an 8-4 year.
And after last week's performance, an 8-4 or 9-3 season looks more and more plausible by the minute, just one week after many fans felt they would be lucky to make a bowl game.
With their hardest two games behind them and Wisconsin and OSU showing weaknesses, many fans suddenly even feel that 10-2 is a legitimate possibility again.
Perhaps, by that point, they'll find a spot back in the top 25, eh, writers and coaches?
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