Nervous Energy September 16, 2011
It’s after midnight, and I can’t sleep. And this is Thursday night. I’ll be a wreck tomorrow. I figure as an exercise to help me sleep, I’ll type out my anxiety. This might be 300 words, it might be 3,000.
Here’s where I’m at. I read this article from Adam Rittenberg on the Big Ten blog at ESPN this morning. And this part sent me in a tailspin.
Team X won its bowl game convincingly in December, capping a season that surprised many so-called experts. Team X boasts an exciting young dual-threat quarterback who has complemented his athleticism with better passing. Team X typically ranks among the nation’s top-20 teams in rushing, returns a veteran line and a nice backfield mix. Despite losing three defenders to the NFL draft, Team X has several seasoned defensive backs and linebackers. Team X has won its first two games by a combined score of 89-18. Team X plays eight home games, including each of the first five and six of the first seven.
So, are you buying or selling?
Oh, you want to know the team’s name? The head coach’s name, too?
OK, understood. Let me know if you change your mind.
This is the perception the Illinois Fighting Illini and their coach Ron Zook are up against as they try to regain a place on the national college football radar. For every reason to buy into Illinois, there are other reasons to stay away from the Orange and Blue.
So true (sooo truuuue).
I know he’s just a Northwestern fan taking a shot at the program, but it doesn’t make it any less true. We’re Illinois, and we can’t be trusted. I try with every fiber of my being to change that perception of this program, but the thought is always there, lurking.
To be honest, it’s the reason we won’t sell out on Saturday night. It’s the reason most fans won’t scream on third down. It’s the reason fans at Memorial Stadium care more about sitting down than any other college stadium in the country. Fans extended grace to this program three times in the last 20 years. After the 1995 team fell apart and we sunk to the low of 1997, it was strike one. Strike two came when we went from a BCS Bowl to 1-11 in two short years. Strike three was 2009 – coming off a Rose Bowl we go 5-7 and then 3-9. Since that point, the fans don’t/won’t/can’t trust. And that explains how we can come off a bowl win and lose thousands of season ticket holders. Does anyone really think Illinois football can be trusted?
So that thought has held me captive all day. What if that game happens? What if we’re embarrassed on our home field against a ranked opponent? What if it all falls apart by halftime, and the second half is a half-empty stadium watching an Arizona State dance-a-thon? What will I feel like when I sit down at this keyboard on Sunday?
Even worse, what if it’s another 1994 Penn State or 2000 Michigan or 2002 Ohio State? An oh-so-close loss to a superior team where one single play in each game could have flipped the win to the Illini. I’m not sure how many more games like that my heart can handle. What if we blow another late lead? What if we fail in our 46th consecutive comeback attempt? (That’s a real number, by the way). Sure, the season could be salvaged – it’s just #18 Arizona State who might implode and finish the season 6-6 – but could the psyche of this fanbase recover from another that game?
But then again…
What if this team is different? What if this quarterback is different? What if, despite my predictions of a sophomore slump, Nathan is ready for the big time? What if he’s ready to lead this team on a run at the Big Ten Championship Game?
OK, I’m liking where my thoughts are going. We probably have our best two coordinators of any time in those 20 years. We’re actually a disciplined, precise team that doesn’t draw penalties or wildly turn the ball over. The systems have been in place for over a year now, and maybe we’re going to see results better than we’ve imagined. Maybe the turnover fairy is ready to shine on us the entire season. Maybe we’ll continue to lead the country in third down conversion percentage. Maybe we can be trusted.
Maybe this is only a game against a decent-but-not-great Pac-12 opponent. Or maybe it’s the start of something big.
OK, I can sleep now. I’m not going to edit this – we’ll call it pre-SOC. Time to head to bed and dream of Terry Hawthorne pick-sixes.