There is always pain when the Illinois football team loses, which is how you can tell you are a fan.
Whether it be a team like the Illini, Chicago Bears, Chicago Cubs, or whatever team you root for, there should always be a little bit of pain. It is why you watch. That little pain makes the excitement of a victory that much more elating.
On Saturday, we watched Illinois have a chance at knocking off No. 7 Penn State only to fall short because of offensive woes. If the Illini would have found a spark on offense, the 30-13 loss could have easily been a victory.
With that loss, Illinois moves to 1-2 on the season. That is a record that isn’t positive, but it is also a record that isn’t too shocking. A road game against a good Kansas team and a home matchup against a top-10 team in the country are not shocking losses.
There are plenty of games ahead that Illinois can win, including this weekend when Florida Atlantic comes to town. This is an opportunity to get back on track, which means something completely different than it used to for this program.
With previous coaching regimes, back on track would mean not getting blown out. It would mean, let’s at least be somewhat competitive in games and maybe we can sneak in a couple of victories over the bottom of the Big Ten. When Illinois has started 1-2 in the past, it usually meant we were in for a long season. I just put together a prediction for what the rest of the 2023 campaign could hold, and I believe there is a reason to be positive.
I also believe we should continue to put trust in our coaching staff. Bret Bielema has given me no reason not to trust him. Even when the Illini seem to be struggling, the games are competitive and we aren’t getting blown out.
Bret Bielema has made Illinois football a nationally competitive program
We are now three games into year three of the Bielema regime, and overall, I have been pleased. There has been a bowl appearance, and Illinois is a team that other programs have to fear to some extent.
Bielema has now coached 28 games during his time in Champaign, which is a pretty decent sample size. We have seen what the highs can look like, eight wins and a bowl game appearance. But what about the lows? What is the floor for the Illinois football team under Bielema?
I am looking at the floor as to how bad are Illinois’ losses. Through those 28 games under Bielema, Illinois has a total of two losses that have been by 20 points or more. That is only 7.1% of the games where Illinois isn’t competitive at the end. Even at that, those two losses were in the first seven games under Bielema.
But how does this compare to past coaching regimes?
During the Lovie Smith era, Illinois wasn’t competitive in a lot of contests. In fact, out of the 57 games Lovie coached the Orange and Blue, 21 of those contests were losses by 20 or more points. Let that sink in. 36.8% of the time, Illinois was losing by 20 or more points.
Before Lovie was the one year under Bill Cubit in 2015. Illinois won five games that season, but the program was beaten by 20 or more points in three out of the 12 games, which is 25%.
The coach who Cubit replaced in 2015 was Tim Beckman. His rein at Illinois lasted three seasons. In the 37 games that Beckman coached the Illini, the program was beaten by 20 or more points in 13 contests. So, 35.1% of the time Illinois was losing by 20 or more points under Beckman.
Count it up, between Beckman, Cubit, and Lovie, that is nine seasons of some bad Illinois football. 37 out of 106 games in that nine-year stretch were losses by 20 or more points. 34.9% of the time, Illinois fans had to sit through a blowout for nearly a decade.
So, while starting 1-2 isn’t fun, and there are some things Illinois needs to fix, I think having a bit of perspective is a good idea. This program was in a dark place for nearly a decade, and Bielema has been able to make us whole again. I trust him to continue to keep Illinois competitive and to win games in the future.