For the second time in my life, Illinois, fresh off a BCS Bowl, has pushed itself right back into the mediocrity pit.
In 2002, the Illini posted a 5-7 record after going to the Sugar Bowl the prior year. This season, Illinois finished with a similar 5-7 whimper after their performances against Ohio State and Northwestern. One can't help but wonder about the connection.
Step forward, fall back.
Oh, but this season was supposed to be different. Linebacker Brit Miller told us so: "We don't want to be that class that's remembered for a 6-6 year."(1) Well, congrats, Brit, you won't be.
This year was supposed to be it, the year Illinois as a program would finally sustain long-term Big Ten success, to nose their big orange nose back in with the top of the conference.
Junior quarterback Juice Williams was finally coming into his own and started - gasp - Heisman buzz after overshadowing Chase Daniel in the opener. Martez Wilson, 5-star recruit, was supposed to light up the Big Ten as a sophomore. Will Davis? Leader on one of the best defensive lines in the country. Safeties, offensive linemen, running backs? More than enough talent to replace what departed, they told us.
A funny thing happened on the way back to Pasadena.
With a Swiss-cheese defense and a running game that intimidated nobody, Illinois beat only four Division I teams, only three from the Big Ten, and only one that will go bowling this year, a close-cut win over rivals Iowa at home.
They lost to Western Michigan.
They lost to a Wisconsin team that had lost four straight and beat Cal-Poly by one point. In overtime.
They gift-wrapped a game to Minnesota at home.
Even with the blessing of Michigan's worst team since Bo Schembechler arrived in Ann Arbor, Illinois finished 5-7. They're the first Big Ten Rose Bowl squad not to go bowling the next year in decades.
Martez Wilson? Big Ten doesn't know he exists. Juice Williams? Interception-crazy and inconsistent in his leadership. The lines? Let's just say no one's going to be writing about them next preseason, and don't even get me started on the pass defense.
Aside from Miller, WR Arrellious Benn, S Donsay Hardeman, and perhaps CB Vontae Davis, no one impressed with any kind of consistency. The running-back-by-committee approach couldn't hold a candle to one Rashard Mendenhall. The coaches, likewise, lost many admirers with another season of questionable decisions and fundamental gaffes.
This was supposed to be the year that Ron Zook's superior recruiting was supposed to shine, with seniors who've known no other coach and his first renowned class entering their third years. It wasn't just with the top-ranked studs like Wilson, either, but also with the lower-ranked players Zook brought in, heralded as diamonds in the rough.
Instead, it appears we might have some dull, Ron Turner-style duds.
No one in 2002 wanted to chase Turner from the program. Everyone said that he deserved a chance and his superior coaching skills would turn the ship right back towards the top of the Big Ten. Instead, we sank to the bottom.
I don't think that will happen with Zook, but there's certainly little sign that the program is anywhere near where we thought.
In the end, Illinois fans must come to terms with the fact that last season's team was a 7-5 team who went 9-3 while this year's team was a 7-5 team that went 5-7. Unfortunately, that puts a downward trend on recruiting; and indeed, today, highly-sought-after LB Hiawatha Bell announced he would attend North Carolina instead of Illinois.
The Fighting Illini still have plenty of top recruits lined up for next year. They're currently 5th by most evaluations among Big Ten schools for '09 recruiting, and many expect them to move ahead of the crumbling Michigan program. Guys like DE Craig Drummond and QB Nathan Scheelhaase look to be promising prospects for the future, and younger players like DT Corey Liuget, WRs AJ Jenkins and Fred Sykes, and RB Jason Ford have already made a positive impact on the field.
But for now, we as fans have no choice but to declare the season an absolute waste of everything. Momentum? Gone. The claim to be an on-the-rise program? Vanished. Returning All-Big-10 players on defense? Good-bye. Legitimate Rose hopes? Not for a few years now. First Illinois team to go bowling in back-to-back years since Makovic? Here's looking at you, 2010.
Perhaps it was just a bad year to wear orange. Tennessee, Syracuse, Clemson, and not even Texas are where they want to be right now. Perhaps there were off-the-field issues that haven't come to light, struggles between coaches and players, or emotional cancers in the locker room. Perhaps the filming of The Journey distracted the team from their task on the field.
I just feel it was a wasted season, to be on the threshold of turning the corner, complete with a beautifully renovated stadium and a self- proclaimed "Illini Renaissance" only to run and hide from even the desperate Motor City Bowl Committee.
Step forward, fall back.
It'll be a long offseason.
(1) Daniel Johnson "Illini Senior Linebacker Brit Miller Talks Rantoul, the Big Ten, and Belly Flops." Daily Illini. 7/29/2008.