SOC - Wisconsin
I want to talk about "culture". We hear this term a lot - Lovie is trying to change the "culture", Brad Underwood wants to change the whole "culture" around Illinois Basketball, but what does that really mean? Well, Webster's defines... (no, not really).
"Culture" is the reason Wisconsin has been to bowl games 21 of the last 22 years and Illinois... has not. (Fun fact - the only reason they haven't been to 22 bowls in a row was Brandon Lloyd's catch in 2001.) "Culture" is the reason Bret Bielema won at Wisconsin but lost at Arkansas, why Gary Andersen won at Wisconsin but lost at Oregon State, why Paul "just don't put me in front of the camera" Chryst is currently 38-9 at Wisconsin after 19-19 at Pitt.
Nebraska lost their culture 20 years ago and they haven't been able to get it back (across multiple coaches). Tennessee and Michigan lost theirs 10 years ago - Michigan appears to finally be back; Tennessee still has a long way to go. Colorado lost their culture for more than a decade and perhaps have only now stumbled upon it again. (I didn't plan it this way, but... all of the teams I just listed won a national title in the 1990's.)
What is "culture"? I think it's best defined as having a self-sustaining identity. "Self-sustaining" being the most important part. Just like any organization in the world, you need buy-in, and once you have that buy-in, for an organization where everyone is capped at participting for four years, it passes on from one crop of newcomers to the next. Football is a sport that requires belief - the Proper State Of Mind and whatnot - and programs that develop a culture usually have seniors who teach (and example) that belief year after year.
Culture is also identity. Wisconsin has done one thing (run the ball) for 25 years and everyone rallies around that. Nebraska had an identity and then they tried to hire Bill Callahan to install a West Coast passing offense (yes, at Nebraska). Arkansas threw all over everyone for a long time and then they hired Bielema to build that Wisconsin run game identity at Arkansas (it failed misesrably). Teams with a great culture know who they are, recruit to it, and keep the train moving.
And it's also off-the-field. I believe that the suspensions and dismissals you're seeing right now is Lovie's attempt to build a culture. Some coaches are too lenient (I think it's fair to say that after a while, Ron Zook "lost the team"), some coaches are too strict, and some coaches simply figure out how to get a group of 85 players to hold themselves and each other accountable.
I mentioned it above, but seniors are everything in this. They lead by example, they keep the kids in line, they pass the torch to the next set of seniors. Yes, none of these things have anything to do with actual football, but every program you want Illinois to be has great seniors passing leading and then passing it on.
Over the past 25 years, culture-wise, Wisconsin has done everything right and Illinois has done everything wrong. Talent-wise, the programs have been more or less even (no really). In the last 15 years, Wisconsin has had 21 players drafted in the NFL draft. Illinois has had 25. Coaching obviously plays a big part of that, but a big part of coaching is culture. And tomorrow, every Wisconsin player absolutely believes they will win because they're Wisconsin (and we believe we'll lose because we're Illinois). Turning that ship around is a massive task.
I'll be honest - before the Purdue game, even when predicting that Purdue would win by 16, I was thinking I might pick Illinois to shock the world in this one. I had this "Wisconsin is sneaky-bad - maybe 7-5 bad" belief, and if we looked good against Purdue, I was thinking about picking a crazy upset. I still believe this defense is set up best to stop a Wisconsin offense, not a Purdue offense.
But then two things happened. One, Wisconsin got exposed at Michigan (at one point before Wisconsin's garbage-time touchdown drive to "only" lose 38-13, I believe total yards were something like 420 to 190), and two, we got exposed against Purdue (at one point, THE END OF THE GAME, total yards were 611 to 250). So my "maybe we start putting something together and Wisconsin walks into this one expecting to give 45% effort and win by 30 and we shock them" thoughts all went away. Wisconsin, unfortunately, now knows they have a lot to work on and Illinois, well, Illinois just lost 46-7 on homecoming.
I do think we'll cover, though (hurray?). Right now I see -24.5, and I'm not thinking this is a loss that big. Our weakness is pass rush and pass defense, and those aren't Wisconsin's strengths. Our strength is creating turnovers to stop drives, and Wisconsin's quarterback has thrown 19 interceptions in his last 20 games. They'll still get their yards - good gravy will they get their yards - but I don't think the score will be out of control crazy. At least I hope it won't.
So with my "maybe we're not so bad?" after the Rutgers game shattered, and with my "maybe Wisconsin is overconfident and ripe for surprise?" shot as well, I don't have much else other than "I think we cover". I think we can get the offense going a little bit, I think we can grab some turnovers, I think we can score a few points... but I think Wisconsin's culture dominates the day.
Wisconsin 37, Illinois 17