Football Bracket - 7 vs. 10
When I put together the seeds, I don't put numbers in front of the teams because I don't want to be thinking about matchups. It's the same process I use when I put together The 90 Illini. With that, I start with one player, then add the next player, and that guy either goes above or below the other guy. So for last season, if I started with Reggie Corbin, he goes into the document. If the next guy is Deon Pate, he goes below Corbin. Next guy is Stanley Green, he goes above Pate but below Corbin. And so on and so on until I get The 90 Illini. Then I add numbers and see who came out as #90 and who just missed the cut at #91.
For this, I did the same. And I really wish I would have manipulated it. Because I think there are two teams who aren't the #1 seed but could easily win it all: 2001, who came out as the 2-seed, and 1994, who ended up as the 7. And now, if they both win the next two matchups, they'll face off in the second round.
I should probably just start the 1994 section so that you know why I think they're a team who could win it all.
Regular season record: 6-5
Bowl result: Beat East Carolina 30-0 in the Liberty Bowl
This could honestly be a book. In fact, I don't know why I'm not taking this shelter-at-home thing and just writing a book about the 1994 Illini football team. I could honestly write 50,000 words on that team. Besides the Purdue game, I have very specific memories of every single game. Including the Liberty Bowl. Why am I not writing this book?
(Because only 28 people would buy it.)
I'll try to keep this condensed, but I might go on for a long, LONG time here. That season - the first of my two senior years at UIUC - is forever burned into my mind.
First off, I need to address what I wrote above - that I could see 1994 winning this entire bracket. Yet another 6-win Illini team beating the 10-win teams? Absolutely. I'll just mic drop here at the start.
Below is a chart, put together by CollegeFootballData.com, of the Illini SP+ (NERDstat) rating for every season since 1970. All data 2005 and forward is Bill Connelly's full SP+ workup on each season. Each season before 2005 is him going back and applying his formula given the data available for each season (which is, obviously, less data than what is available now). The way Connelly approaches it: 2005 to today, the numbers are solid right down to the decimal point; 2004 and before, they're a little shakier, but the data still represents what SP+ sets out to do, which is statistically determine whether a team was truly dominant or just fortunate.
The highest-rated Illini team of the last 50 years? No, it's not 2001 or 1983 or 2007 or 1989. It's 1994:
If you go by SP+, here's the ranking of the top-6 Illini teams of the last 50 years:
3. 1999 (!!)
Yep - the two Rose Bowl teams are 5th and 6th. And 1994 is first. Which begs the question: how is it a possible that statistically, the 1994 team was our best team of the last 50 years and yet they somehow lost five games? OH, LET ME TELL YOU.
First off, you need to have this statistic memorized: Five losses by a combined 22 points. Every loss by less than a touchdown. Pretty much one play here or there in five games and you can flip them all to wins. Including a home game against #2 Penn State. More on that in a minute.
I'll start with this: the 1994 defense was the best defense of my lifetime and was better than any offense I've seen. Meaning, if you asked me to pick one unit from one season, I'm taking the 1994 defense with the first pick.
The main reason: the linebackers. It was a 3-4 defense, so there were four "linebackers" even though Simeon Rice was simply a weakside defensive end. But all four linebackers played in the NFL. Two of the four linebackers won the Butkus Award (Howard in 1994, Hardy in 1995). OK fine I'll just say it the way I'll always say it.
There have been 25 seasons of Illini football since 1994 and there's not a single linebacker on any of those teams who would have started on the 1994 defense. The closest anyone has come would be 2011 Whitney Mercilus pushing Simeon Rice for playing time (Simeon still wins) and 2007 J Leman pushing John Holocek for snaps (Holocek wins, in my opinion). Rank "best Illini linebackers of the past 25 years" today and it's still Howard, Holocek, Hardy, and Rice and then everyone else fighting for 5th.
They were so dominant that the rest of the defense didn't matter. Quick, name a defensive lineman from the 1994 defense. Most people can't. I guess some people might be able to name the highly underrated Mikki Johnson at DT (plus maybe Chad Copher), but it's largely a nameless defensive line (unless you include Rice as a DE). Basically, that defense is known for two hard-hitting safeties (Ty Washington and Antoine Patton) and then the four linebackers. (Can you name the corners? Robert Crumpton and Scott "top-5-fastest-Illini-of-all-time" Turner.)
The season starts out on a Thursday night at Soldier Field against Washington State. I drive up from Champaign expecting absolute destruction (we were ranked #22 preseason) and.. we lose 10-9 because the offense can't get anything going. I was in such denial that entire game. I thought this team was underrated at #22, and figured we'd win by 30, and then we just keep punting and punting and punting. My lasting memory of that game was the Illini driving to about the 40 or so and then bringing in freshman kicker Brett Scheuplein to attempt something like a 56-yarder for the win. Scheuplein wasn't even the starting kicker - that was Chris Richardson - but Scheuplein had the strongest leg of the two so they let him attempt the kick. Can you imagine? Freshman, not the starter, watching your first college football game from the sideline and then coach tells you to get in there and attempt a kick from near midfield for the win. (He missed badly.)
Following that loss was the greatest defensive performance in Illini history. We return home, unranked, to take on Missouri (back when the series was home-and-home and not played in St. Louis). Here's the fun stats from that game:
Score: Illinois 42, Missouri 0
Total yards: Illinois 540, Missouri 46 (yes, 46 total yards the entire game)
Missouri first downs: 1
We, the people in the stands, were so mad about that first down. It came with three minutes left against our second-string defense. Simeon had a few 10-yard sacks in the game, so I want to say Missouri had negative yardage for a lot of the game, but the climbed all the way up to 46 yards by the end. And that one stupid first down.
So now we have our mojo back. We beat NIU fairly easily, re-enter the rankings at #25, and are set up to destroy Purdue. If you're sensing the theme already, you know what comes next. Purdue 22, Illinois 16.
I've written about that game many times, how it's this massive blind spot in my Illini memories. There's a famous play - Ken Dilger gets tackled at the one by a defensive back much smaller than him and we fall one yard short of the winning TD - but I cannot remember anything about that game. In my (deep) memory banks, it's like that game didn't exist.
So now we fall out of the rankings again, and #17 Ohio State is up next in Columbus. This was the Dana Howard guarantee game. After the loss to Purdue, Howard "guaranteed" that Illinois would beat Ohio State in Columbus. And then he goes out and gets 14 tackles, 2 sacks, and an interception in the endzone to lead Illinois to a 24-10 win. We come back home to play Iowa, win 47-7 in a complete laugher, and now I'm convinced I'm watching one of the best teams in America... who happens to be 4-2.
Make that 4-3. We play #11 Michigan next and.. I don't want to talk about that game. Because it just makes me think of this play. The deciding play in that game was this punt return by Amani Toomer, but there were two penalties on the play. One was off screen and wasn't picked up by the cameras (we, the fans, went nuts because the Illini guy blocked in the back ended up taking out another Illini player as he tumbled to the ground).
The other one was this, where the Michigan defender dove and ankle-tackled the Illini coverage guy just before he got to Toomer. Hit from the side or ankle tackle by the Michigan blocker? It's so close.
(I wish the other block in the back was on film. In my memory, it was so obvious.)
ANYWAY, we lose by 5 (on ABC, with Keith Jackson on the call) and now this special season is 4-3. We travel to Northwestern and win, then we go to Minnesota and win, and now we're bowl eligible, inches from 9-0, but sitting at 6-3. With #2 Penn State coming to town. Penn State had been #1 most of the season, but when #3 Nebraska beat #2 Colorado, they leap-frogged #1 Penn State (and eventually won the title). So Penn State was #2 coming in.
That game is easily on the "top ten football games in Memorial Stadium history" list. Illinois jumps out to a 21-0 lead on the #2 team in the country and I'm going nuts (shirtless in the front row of the East Balcony as the N in an I-L-L-I-N-I grouping of six guys). Penn State starts to creep back in it but it's still 28-14 at halftime. The rest I don't want to dwell on because it hurts so much. Two 90+ yard fourth quarter drives from Penn State and they win 35-31.
Our defense - that magnificent defense - was so tired at that point and it became that game we've all seen so many times: human bodies have 40+ minutes of offense in them but only 25 minutes of great defense. At a certain point, the scale tips and the defense has no ability to stop anything unless there's a turnover. Penn State could barely get two yards on a running play in the first half, and now they're getting 6-8 yards on every play. Such a helpless feeling.
So now we're 6-4 with...
- A 1-point loss to Washington State where we missed the winning FG as time expired.
- A 6-point loss to Purdue where our tight end was tackled at the one as time expired.
- A 5-point loss to #11 Michigan because of a stupid punt return.
- A 4-point loss to #2 Penn State in a game we led for 59 minutes.
To top it all off, we lost at Wisconsin in the final game of the year (by six). I drove up to that game, of course, and embarrassed myself by being overly loud when Illinois scored (and then heard it from the entire section when we lost). That was a long drive home. This team which ABSOLUTELY SHOULD HAVE BEEN 9-2 AT A MINIMUM was now 6-5.
The Liberty Bowl was fun, though. Shout out to Craig the cab driver and the excellent Proto Pups at the stadium.
(10) 1988 Illini
Regular season record: 6-4-1
Bowl result: Lost 14-10 to Florida in the All American Bowl
Speaking of blind spot games, that's the one bowl game I can't remember. We lose to Emmitt Smith and Florida and I have zero recollection of watching that game. That would have been December of my sophomore year of high school so I had just gotten my driver's license two days prior - maybe I was out driving around trying to learn how to drive a stick? (I'm sure I wasn't, and I'm sure I watched, I just can't remember that game.)
1988 feels so much like 1989 to me. Jeff George throwing the Mike Bellamy and Steven Williams. Henry Jones and Marlon Primous wandering around the defensive backfield making plays. It's just that every time I think of those players, I think about them in their 1989 form, not 1988. I'll attempt to explain.
Say this fall is a special season. Well, to start, let's say there's college football this fall. And say we get a 2001 or 2007-like season - it's not going to be a NY6 bowl, but say it's something like a 9-3 season out of nowhere. Well then in 15 years, we'll think about Peters to Bhebhe or we'll think about Jake Hansen making a big tackle or we'll think about Nate Hobbs or Sydney Brown making a big play in the secondary in their 2020 form, not 2019. 2019 would have been the build-up to 2020. Kittner-to-Lloyd means 2001, not 2000.
So for me, 1988 existed simply to set up what 1989 would be (two losses to top-10 teams away from immortality). Jeff George is the 1989 quarterback, not the 1988 quarterback. I know that's weird - I know it's just me - but that's how I view things.
Which means I basically already wrote this breakdown when I wrote about 1989 last week. That was kind of a 22-game season since most every player form 1988 returned for 1989, so what we were seeing in 1988 was just the early struggles which were all sorted out by the USC game in 1989. We learned about all of the players along the way. Jeff George went from "that guy who transferred here from Purdue" before the 1988 season to "on the NFL radar" before the 1989 season to "#1 overall pick" after the season. Darrick Brownlow was developing from unknown linebacker to eventual Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. So 1988 was The Learning Year.
And it was the first year of a new coach. John Mackovic stepped into the program at the right time. Mike White had recruited well, but recruiting one specific player (Hart Lee Dykes) cost him his job. Mackovic took over somewhat of a rebuild, but all the pieces were in place (George, Brownlow, Jones) to win immediately.
It started off poorly. Washington State comes to Champaign and wins 44-7 in the opener. That's followed by a 21-16 loss at Arizona State, and suddenly the new coach is 0-2.
Then, a four game winning streak. Beat Utah (how hilarious that the non-conference schedule was Wazzu-ASU-Utah followed by USC-Colorado-Utah State the next year - can you imagine?), and then we win the first three Big Ten games over Ohio State, Purdue, and Wisconsin. Remember, beating Wisconsin was no big deal at the time - Wisconsin in the 80's was basically Illinois in the 2010's - you expected to go there and win.
Man, as I go through the rest of the games on this list, I'm picturing the 1989 matchup, not the 1988 matchup. 1989 Michigan? Home lost that cost us the Rose Bowl. 1988 - uh, I guess a 38-9 loss on the road that I'm not sure actually happened? Have I basically replaced the entire 1988 season with 1989 memories? DOES THIS MEAN I MIGHT DO THE SAME WITH 2019 MEMORIES?
OK, I'm 2,000+ words deep and getting loopy at this point so I need to wrap this up. The University of Illinois football team in 1988 would finish with a record of 6-4-1. The tie came in a road game at Minnesota. At 5-4-1, Illinois still needed a win over hapless Northwestern to make a bowl game, and they pulled it out, barely: Illinois 14, Northwestern 9.
That meant a bowl game against Emmitt Smith and Florida, and again, I have no real memories. Wait, did the 1988 season actually happen? Because in 1989.......
(That's the matchup. Go vote here.)