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Illini Football Preview: Arkansas State

It used to be that $850,000 got you quite a bit. A dozen years ago, it would settle a sexual harassment lawsuit with Paula Jones. Even as recently as seven years ago, you could blow the sum on a fake German-Dutch modernist painting; or at least you could if you were Steve Martin (I kid: Mr. Martin is a respected art collector: a painting from his collection was easily one of the best works at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Edward Hopper retrospective).

Now, all it gets you is a season opener game with Arkansas State. That’s right: the University of Illinois is paying Arkansas State $850,000 to play in Champaign.

Why so much? If college football followed normal-world rules, the higher price would indicate a higher quality a performer. You want Jay-Z and Kanye, you’ll have to pony up some serious coin. If you’re willing to accept The Reverend Horton Heat, not so much. But college football and money always make for strange bedfellows. The worse a college football team is, the more money they can command. Stay with me here.

It takes at least six wins to be bowl-game eligible. Bowl appearances equal large payments to the school, hence a financial incentive to fluff the win tally and get the minimum six. Schedule some cupcake teams in the non-conference schedule, and throw in one or two quality (but not too quality) schools as well. Add in the conference schedule and the overall strength of schedule averages out to be respectable. And keep in mind: strength of schedule is a relative measure. Since everyone is padding their W column with home matchups against Southwest Missouri State College of Metallurgy & Mining, it all comes out in the wash.

The cupcake Davids quickly realized that they have the bowl-hungry Goliaths by the short hairs in this calculus. Hence higher payments to come play. The invisible hand of the free market once again puts its hand under the flowing robe of academia. (Seriously, why did you think those two guys behind the Alma Mater were so gleefully shaking hands?).

So, $850,000 later, the Fighting Illini to get the Red Wolves from Arkansas State to come play. (Oddly, this may be a good deal: next season Ohio State has Colorado scheduled to come play in Columbus, at a price to the Buckeyes of $1.4 million. Just sit and think about that for a second. $1.4 million dollars.)

Moving from the money to the matchup, the question on everyone’s minds is, did Illinois book the wrong cupcake, and put themselves at risk of a loss? Realistically, no.

There are some warning signs there, most notably in 2009, when Arkansas State lost by a scant 3 points to Iowa, which ended the season ranked #7 nationally. Arkansas State has played some teams to some close scares, but never quite gets over the hump. This year’s Illini are talented enough that they can play some pretty poor football and still win.

Here’s how the teams stack up.

Arkansas State was only .500 in the Sun Belt Conference last year. They have one offensive lineman from returning from last year. One. Novices on the O-line are likely to spell huge problems for a team like Arkansas State, which is extremely dependent on the pass. This should give Illinois’ defensive line, a lingering question, plenty of opportunities to get their kinks worked out.

Illinois is on the upswing. A lot of solid returning players are much more comfortable in the systems installed by last year’s new offensive and defensive coordinators. Scheelhaase looks very solid at QB, and the receiving corps looks healthy and deeper than it has been in years. And then there’s the run game, where I predict this game will be decided in favor of Illinois.

People rightly lament the loss of Mikel Leshoure to the NFL, but the running game this year is going to drop off much less than people expect. Illinois brings back four starters for a very seasoned and excellent offensive line (underappreciated as a factor in the run game) and an outstanding blocking fullback in Jay Prosch (same). People are overlooking Jason Ford because they really haven’t seen much of him. Jason Ford averaged 6.1 yards per carry in 2009, just .7 yards behind Leshoure that year. Ford averaged 4.8 yards per carry last year, a very respectable number considering he was often played in 3rd-and-short situations. Mark my word: he’s better than you think he is, especially after his work with a dietician in leaning out in the offseason.

The position I’m most excited to see in the early going will probably surprise: tight end. The coaches are saying that it’s a deep position this year. Petrino has the clever offensive mind to take advantage of it, and Scheelhaase has the experience in the system and confidence to utilize the ends. If the running game continues to be solid and the receiver corps is improved as expected, getting the tight ends involved will likely give defenses fits.

And then there’s history. Illinois has met Arkansas State twice before. They last met in 2002 when Illinois surrendered a whopping seven points to Arkansas State. Luckily, the offense put up 59. In 1999, Illinois kept the Red Wolves out of the end zone entirely, winning 41-3.

One thing to be wary of with these types of matchups is the unequal motivation. These early games are an opportunity to make a name for a small program like Arkansas State, and their attention shows in offseason Tweets by their head coach like “We won’t win on Sept. 3rd at Illinois if we don’t win today in the weight room.” (Yes, my research included reading Ark. State football Twitter feeds: I love my readers that much.) But Illinois has plenty of motivation to stomp on Saturday, after receiving lots of disrespect in preseason rankings and predictions. Such things don’t mean squat, but they are motivation enough for the Illini to show the prognosticators wrong in the opener.

If you’re not headed to Memorial, the game is televised on the Big Ten Network, and kicks off at 2:30 p.m. Check back with Smile Politely afterwards, and we’ll recap whether that was $850,000 well spent.

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