COLUMBUS — Illinois’ football program has been through so many rebuilding projects in the last 25 years that it might be a better fit for HGTV than ESPN.
Two decades ago, the Illini sank to 2-9 in 1996, which cost coach Lou Tepper his job. By 2001, they were in the Sugar Bowl with a 10-2 record. Three years later after back-to-back last place finishes in the Big Ten, Tepper’s replacement, Ron Turner, was fired and Ron Zook took over as coach.
By 2007, Zook had Illinois in the Rose Bowl after a memorable upset of Ohio State. Four years later, Zook was fired. Since then, Illinois has averaged four wins a season.
Only Indiana, with 22 losing seasons in the last 25 seasons before this one, has done worse in the Big Ten than Illinois’ 17 losing seasons over that time span.
On the other end of the spectrum, Ohio State has 24 winning seasons in the last 25 years. Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska have had 22 winning seasons in the last 25 years. Penn State has had 21 winning seasons and Iowa has had 19.
Longtime NFL coach Lovie Smith, who took the 2006 Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl, is the latest coach to try to rebuild the Illini.
Illinois was 3-9 last year in his first season. So far this year it is 2-7 overall and 0-7 in the Big Ten.
The biggest problem for Illinois might be more about the players than the coaches, though.
There were no incoming players ranked higher than a 3-star in the Illini’s 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes and there is one 4-star in the 2018 class.
The one 4-star in the 2018 class is defensive tackle Calvin Avery, a Texas high school standout who turned down an Oklahoma offer and committed to Illinois.
He cited Smith’s NFL background as a big factor in his decision. “I feel like he can take me to the next level and that’s where I want to be,” Avery told 247sports.com.
The big question is if Smith’s NFL background can draw more top-level talent to downstate Illinois.
So far, he has had limited success with that. And with 11 years as an NFL head coach and eight more as an NFL assistant, recruits might suspect he could go back to the pros if things don’t improve soon.
It would appear Ohio State (8-2, 7-1 Big Ten) is in for an easy time against Illinois this afternoon in the final home game in the careers of 19 seniors.
But if there is one thing that has been consistent about this year’s Ohio State team it is its unpredictability.
Going back 25 years and probably a lot more years, has there ever been a crazier, more unpredictable stretch of three games than the last three games this year’s Buckeyes have played?
An unbelievable comeback to beat Penn State was followed by an unimaginable drubbing at Iowa, which was followed by a huge win over Michigan State when most people were expecting a close game.
Unpredictability does not appear to be on the agenda today, though.
Illinois has lost eight games in a row and hasn’t won since Sept. 9. The Illini average 16.2 points a game, which is worse than all but six NCAA Division I teams.
They have allowed 36 sacks, which means Ohio State’s defensive linemen will pounce on their offensive line the same way they would attack a post-game steak.
If Ohio State’s starters are still in the game at the start of the fourth quarter, it will be a surprise. If they are still in the game with five minutes to play, you will be watching a football miracle.
Ohio State will win big and then move on to playing Michigan.
The prediction: Ohio State 56, Illinois 10.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.