In this, the Year of Celebrating Lovie Smith’s Breakthrough at Illinois, we’ve run away from reality a little bit.
No doubt there were some refreshing changes, from the opening of the new football facility to the Illini recording a signature win against Wisconsin, a top-10 team at the time, from the improving by the defense to the securing of a bowl bid.
All worthy of note. All worthy of future hope.
Good stuff. All of it.
But when you take off the orange-colored glasses and get a clearer look at things, here is reality:
Illinois closed season with three straight losses, including Monday’s 35-20 Redbox Bowl defeat at the hands of California, to secure its eighth straight season on the wrong side of .500. A step up from last year, which was a step up from the year before? Sure.
That being acknowledged, it might be wise to accept that they’re only on the same step they were when Tim Beckman – remember him? – was forced to step down before the 2015 season, following his own 6-7 campaign concluded with a bowl loss in 2014 that could be considered a carbon copy of Smith’s 2019.
Oh, that’s right. Smith and Co. have been pointing to next season as the real breakout year. Well, ya know, once it became apparent this one wouldn't be ...
Hey, that may prove correct in '20, and it would be nice to see. But the Illini are losing their two top running backs – Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown – as well as the nation’s second-leading tackler this season in linebacker Dele Harding, and, frankly, the jury is still out on the team as a whole, and some of its individuals.
Are the Illini the guys who set a school record in rallying from 25 down at Michigan State and qualify for a bowl bid? Or the ones who limped into Monday on a two-game losing skid following that win for the ages?
Is Brandon Peters the never-say-die leader who put every fiber of his being on the line when trying to run and dive for a first down on fourth-and-17 with Monday’s game seemingly out of reach late in the fourth quarter? Or the quarterback who seemed disinterested at times this season in competing during games that were up for grabs?
Milo Eifler … is he the chiseled out of granite linebacker with a knack for big plays, or just a guy who takes cheap shots, intentional or not?
Frankly, if it were me instead of Josh Whitman at the controls of the school’s athletics department, Smith would have been one step out the door following that prime-time Saturday night debacle back in late September before a pretty rowdy Memorial Stadium crowd, a mauling at the mercy of Big Ten rival Nebraska that saw the visiting Huskers at one point have 700 yards of offense.
Any administrator at the helm worth his salt would be able to look beyond that ridiculously misleading final of 42-38 to see that Smith’s troops had been taken apart, piece by piece. Saved only by Nebraska’s four turnovers and inefficiency at punching it in the end zone after toying with the Illini.
But the A.D. stuck by his guy, and following yet another embarrassment at Minnesota, started to see some returns with a strong effort by the Illini in a close loss to Michigan, then the stunner against No. 6 Wisconsin, along with three more wins right after that, culminating in the thriller at Michigan State.
Well, nothing. They were outplayed on the road by Iowa – granted, a good team – and then manhandled by 3-win Northwestern.
Monday’s effort vs. Cal was better than that, but the result was the same: another L.
So, despite all the changes, what’s any different?
This seems an awful lot like 2014, and not much different than Bill Cubit’s bowl-less, 5-7 fill-in for Beckman 2015.