Illinois excited to kick off Big Ten season at Wisconsin
The Big Ten's "going to play, not going to play, going to play" confusion of a football season finally kicks off in three days when Illinois travels to Madison for a Friday night prime-time matchup against No. 14 Wisconsin.
The conference, which postponed fall sports Aug. 11 only to reverse course Sept. 16, will feature an eight-game, conference-only schedule, plus a ninth game for all 14 teams during the Big Ten championship weekend. The rest of the league begins play Saturday.
Illinois, if it needs a good omen, has not played a conference-only schedule since 1919 -- when the Illini went 6-1 to win the Big Ten and claim the national championship during the 1918 flu pandemic.
Then again, Oct. 23 is the latest start date in Illinois football history. The previous latest start came Oct. 19, 1907 ... a 42-6 loss to the University of Chicago.
The COVID-19 pandemic certainly has forced everyone to adjust their schedules, not to mention dust off the record books.
"We have been without football so long I'm just excited about playing football this week," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "We have gone through withdrawals a little bit of not being involved in this special thing we get to do. So we can't wait to go and excited to be first Big Ten team to go."
Smith has had time to watch conferences around the country get started -- and stopped -- as they deal with COVID outbreaks. He said Illinois has its entire team and coaching staff COVID-free heading to Wisconsin, even while other Big Ten schools have problems.
Purdue coach Jeff Brohm tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday, just six days before the Boilermakers open their season against Iowa.
Wisconsin will not host fans at Camp Randall Stadium. The Big Ten allows families of players and coaches to attend, but due to increased rates of COVID-19 in the state, Wisconsin will not have any fans.
"It will be different, but if you ask me if I would rather have 90,000 Badger fans there or no Badger fans there? I'm going to pick the no Badger fans at any time," Smith said.
The Illini will bus to the game Thursday and go straight to their hotel as they travel to a state with a 26-percent positivity rate.
"We talk about concentrating about things we can control," Smith said. "We are going to have a clean field. Both programs are going to be that way. We've been testing every day, they have been testing every day, so in a way the football teams are in a kind of bubble. We trust the protocols. There are a lot of things on our mind about this Wisconsin game, but us being safe is not one of them."
Illinois began practice Sept. 30, exactly nine months after a 35-20 Redbox Bowl loss to California. That capped a 6-7 season, the best under Smith, who is 15-34 while trying to rebuild what Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit left.
The Illini will have their most experienced team under Smith with more seniors on the 2020 roster (25) than 2018 and 2019 combined (21). It's an important season with a senior group that includes center Doug Kramer from Hinsdale Central, middle linebacker Jack Hansen, and quarterback Brandon Peters, one of several impact transfers.
"We have some key guys coming back, and we have some new guys that will play a big role for us," Peters said.
Illinois' signature win in Smith's tenure came last year against Wisconsin. James McCourt's 39-yard field goal as time expired beat the No. 6 Badgers, 24-23.
The Illini won despite being 30-point underdogs -- and not much has changed as they enter Friday 23-point dogs.
"I figured we'd be pretty substantial underdogs but didn't think it would be the 23-, 24-point area," Hansen said. "It doesn't make sense, but I guess we will see. I'm really excited to get back to playing. It's fun to finally have a game."