CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- In fairness to Champaign News-Gazette Illinois football beat writer Bob Asmussmen, the subsequent list of finding new and exciting opponents for the Illini was his idea. It was a good list and I can verify some of those venues on Asmussmen’s list should be on a bucket list for college football fans. Of course, I think I can do it a bit better. Better for whom? Better for Illinois.
How can it be better? Asmussen’s list was exclusively “teams I would like to see in the future” and that’s completely fair and interesting.
Illinois currently has no scheduling openings until the 2027 season. From 2027 to 2029, the only scheduled matchup is the home-and-home matchups with Missouri.
I thought I’d create a unique list of future home-and-home contracts that Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman should more than consider because it includes two critical qualities.
- Illinois can truly feel like they can win these games. In the midst of the Big Ten Conference mandating a nine game conference schedule and a rule forcing league schools to play a Power Five Conference schools or Notre Dame, BYU and Army, as well as games against select Group of 5 teams such as Cincinnati, Connecticut and Navy, the Illini need to find a realistic way to start the season 3-0 before they undertake the league slate.
- Fans can have a solid weekend experience in these select sites. Also, with a lot of college athletic department budgets needing to do more regional scheduling in its non-revenue sports, why shouldn’t Illini football try to find regional opponents that could bring fan excitement? Therefore, I tried to keep these five matchups within a 450-mile circle of the University of Illinois campus.
Without further ado, here’s the five non-conference matchups that I’d like to see Illinois pursue when their vacancies in the 2027-2029 schedules.
Okay, I just don’t get the argument as to why Illinois has only played the state’s only Group of Five conference opponent twice since 1994 and have never played the Huskies in Dekalb. If the Illini lose this game, is it truly a major embarrassment for the program and a letdown to any in-state recruiting effort for the state’s most recognizable power program? Let’s assume all of these concerns are legitimate (hint: I don’t think they are and will point out why soon), why has Iowa been willing to play them six times in the same timeframe? The Hawkeyes have a game versus NIU in Soldier Field scheduled for this season. Purdue has played NIU twice and lost both games, the last of which was a 55-24 blowout in West Lafayette. Northwestern, which promotes itself as Chicago’s Big Ten team, has played NIU three times since 2000. With the coronavirus being likely a major weight being placed on a smaller Division 1 athletics like NIU and U of I athletics not being immune to fiscal shortfall that came with spring sports and winter sports halted in 2020, wouldn’t it make sense for two of the state’s major college football programs to join up and create a possible revenue boom for both schools? Instead of paying millions of dollars for a “buy” game, why not keep the money and more importantly, keep the revenue in the state of Illinois?
On the recruiting angle, with all due respect to what is the most important task for new Illini football hire Ashton Washington, Illinois doesn’t have an in-state recruiting reputation. None. The most recently signed 2020 recruiting class didn’t include a single signee from the state of Illinois and Illini head coach Lovie Smith said they offered and missed on 19 in-state products. How exactly can the in-state recruiting reputation get worse than going 0 for 19 in a given recruiting year? You want to really try to convince me that a loss to NIU would torpedo any recruiting momentum? Since 2008, only three Power Five Conference schools have played at the 24,000-seat Huskie Stadium in Dekalb but the last two have come recently (Boston College in 2017 and Utah in 2018). Vanderbilt is scheduled to make a return game trip to Dekalb in 2022 and Missouri is making the trip in 2029. In 2028, Illinois could have a non-conference schedule where they never have to leave its home state as they already have a home game against Missouri on the docket and could schedule another home game against a low-level Football Bowl Subdivision opponent and then travel to NIU. Finally, NIU seems to like scheduling multi-game packages against local Power Five Conference opponents that include a game at Soldier Field. While Illinois seems less inclined to do a game at Soldier Field after the loss to South Florida in 2018 only drew an attendance of 21,725 (approximately 35 percent capacity), Iowa is scheduled to do such a game this fall as the Hawkeyes like to use it as a recruiting tool to promote its product to the Chicagoland area prospects that the Illini should be more inclined to be in the market of having an opportunity to sign. For television purposes, I’m sure the home game for the Illini would be picked up by the Big Ten Network but the game at NIU could also be live to many (if not all) Illini fans as a possible NBC Sports Chicago broadcast.
It is just bizarre that Illinois has not played Memphis in a football game but has played IN Memphis’ home stadium as a two-time participant in the Liberty Bowl. What is even more bizarre is there is a Northwest Arkansas Illini Club (which by the way, currently needs a president) and not an Illini alumni club based in either Memphis or Nashville. While Illinois has already solved the Power Five Conference opponent mandate by scheduling the series against Missouri, Memphis would also solve that mandate as well. The Tigers have been a powerful Group of Five Conference program since 2012 as its last two head coaches have moved on to jobs at Power Five Conference powers (Justin Fuente to Virginia Tech and Mike Norvell to Florida State) and since 2015, they’ve defeated Ole Miss (twice), UCLA and Kansas on its home field. However, Memphis is now on its third coach in an eight-year stretch as Ryan Silverfield takes over the Tigers program after being the interim head coach in its Cotton Bowl loss to Penn State. By the time 2027 rolls around, Illinois officials such as Whitman would like to believe the football program would be favored against a Memphis program that has been to a bowl game every year since 2014 but Memphis would likely be seen nationally as a respected opponent. ESPN’s popular ‘College Gameday’ preview show went live from Beale Street last season before the matchup against SMU on Nov. 2.
Memphis also has a fruitful recruiting history of providing talent to programs across the country and the current staff led by Lovie Smith has been interested in branching its southern recruiting ties outside of Florida as they have already been hitting the Atlanta area in the last couple of recruiting cycles. From the fan’s perspective, Memphis is obviously known for Graceland, Beale Street and Sun Studio, which could make for a great weekend destination for Illini fans. Also, the Liberty Bowl does have a capacity of 58,325 making it very possible for Illinois to sell tickets to its home fans to make the trip.
The last and only time Luke Fickell was the head coach of a program playing against Illinois was 2011 when he was the interim head coach at Ohio State when the Buckeyes won 17-7 in Champaign. You just can’t assume Fickell, who will turn 47 years old in August, will be the leader of the Cincinnati program in 2027 but based on the high profile programs that are reportedly on his wish list (Ohio State, Notre Dame, SEC power programs), maybe you can’t rule it out either.
Illinois has played Cincinnati twice where they lost a road game to a Bearcats program led by Brian Kelly in 2009 but Tim Beckman was able to win 45-17 in Champaign in 2013.
Cincinnati has played FBS programs not named Ohio State in the past including wins against UCLA, Virginia Tech and Boston College in the Fickell era and also defeated Miami (Fla.) in 2015 but even before Fickell, the Bearcats have been considered one of the most consistent G5 programs in the nation as since 2014, they’ve had a head coach that would be or already had been on the sidelines for a Power 5 Conference power. However, if Illinois wants to become a consistent bowl participant then the program will want to play and win games like this against opponents like Cincinnati.
Nippert Stadium is the fourth-oldest playing site and fifth-oldest stadium in college football but also went through a renovation in 2014-15 that allowed it to still be a 40,000-seat venue.
Cincinnati also has a connection with having recruiting success in the state of Illinois, most recently signing Jadon Thompson after the four-star receiver pulled back on his verbal pledge from the Illini following the 2020 early signing period. If it’s a game in September, maybe Illini fans could coordinate the matchup with Reds home series at Great American Ball Park or families could spend Sunday at the nationally famous Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, which includes rides, a 4D theater, and animal encounters and shows, before hitting up a Skyline Chili joint on the way home.
Illinois and Vanderbilt have never played a football game and this needs to change. Trust me when I tell you Nashville is one of the most fun cities in the southeast portion of the country to spend a weekend. The Commodores are one of the few Southeastern Conference programs more than willing to play multiple Power 5 Conference programs in a single season and one thing they don’t typically do is win. Last season, Vanderbilt lost non-conferences games to Purdue and UNLV. In 2016, they lost to Georgia Tech and in 2015, they lost to Western Kentucky. Vanderbilt also has a new athletics director hired in February - Candice Storey Lee, is the university’s first female athletic director and the first African-American woman to head a SEC athletics program and now might be the perfect time to build a relationship with. The scheduling path for both schools is perfect as Vanderbilt has openings for home-and-home contracts from 2027 and beyond. Nashville has a downtown scene that Illini fans would enjoy, which hopefully the Music City Bowl bowl representatives will get to find out soon enough, including the Country Music Hall of Fame, The Grand Ole Opry and the morning before the game maybe the Jack Daniel’s Distillery tour will be worth your time. Please check out Hattie B’s, Bolton's Spicy Chicken & Fish, Moore's Famous Fried Chicken or Acme Feed & Seed for a hot chicken sandwich.
Illinois has played Louisville five times in school history and holds a two-game winning streak over a Cardinals program that is trying to dig its way out of the hole it found itself in after the final season of the Bobby Petrino era and then whiffing on its pursuit of hometown boy Jeff Brohm as its new head coach. The good news for Louisville is their second choice - Scott Satterfield - has rebuilt life into a Louisville that not so long ago had a Heisman Trophy winner in Lamar Jackson. In his first season with the Cardinals, Louisville went 8-5 and defeated Mississippi State in the Music City Bowl completing a six-win turnaround from the previous season. Louisville has two commitments in its 2021 recruiting class from Illinois (four-star defensive back safety Benjamin Perry from Chicago and three-star tight end Victor Mullen from Ottawa). By 2027, it is impossible to tell whether the Illini will be on the level of Louisville football because clearly right now they look a step below but it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility to knock off this Atlantic Coast Conference program seven years from now and it’s a regional matchup that has previously drawn attention in past years.