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Illini Gridiron: Fun Fact Edition

This Saturday, Illinois looks to shake off the memories of last week’s brutal defeat at the hands of the Arizona State Sun Devils, and it looks like the scheduling powers that be have set them up well.

At 11:00 a.m., the Illini will kick off against Charleston Southern University. There are no guarantees in college football, but the fact of the matter is that Illinois should not have any trouble dispatching Charleston Southern. If Illinois loses, or even slightly struggles, it will be in some unfathomable way for which a football preview article is wholly insufficient. An outbreak of MRSA infections in the locker room or something. I really don’t know. It’s just such a remote possibility that I can’t predict for you how it could happen.

So, instead of dissecting the matchups and wasting everyone’s time, this week’s preview will be in a wholly new format: the Fun Fact format. This is not meant to provide you with meaningful analysis, because no analysis is meaningful for a game that is not meaningful. Rather, this is meant to provide you with fun facts to talk about over beers in what is likely to be a game that is interesting only insofar as it may provide you with insight into games down the road which are more meaningful.

So here are your fun facts:

  • Charleston Southern University is a nonsensical name, because the school is actually located in the city of North Charleston, South Carolina.
  • Charleston Southern, formerly known as Baptist College, was founded in 1964 (true) and has a total undergraduate enrollment less than a survey course at Foellinger (close enough — less than 3,500 total students)
  • Charleston Southern’s athletics squads are known as the Buccaneers. Merrian-Webster defines “Buccaneer” as “any of the freebooters preying on Spanish ships and settlements especially in the 17th century West Indies; broadly pirate” with a secondary definition of “an unscrupulous adventurer especially in politics or business.” Why anyone would name a team after a Buccaneer is beyond me, but it probably sounds like a good idea if you’re in Tampa and trying to name a pro football expansion team from underneath a pile of cocaine in the mid-70s. For a baptist college, though? I don’t see it.
  • The Buccaneers play football in Division I-AA. I’m supposed to call it FCS, which stands for Football Championship Subdivision, as opposed to FBS (where the Illini play), which stands for Football Bowl Subdivision, but you know what? That’s a waste of everyone’s time since I and every other writer has to clarify which is which every time it comes up. So I’m done. They’re division I-AA, we’re division I-A.
  • Charleston Southern plays in the Big South Conference. It’s true that the conference is in the South, but it’s not even true-ish that it’s Big. So far, the Buccaneers have lost two games, one to in-town and awesomely-named rival The Citadel, which is sort of a service academy and sort of a state funded public university. It’s pretty weird. Their other loss came against the Jacksonville University Dolphins. Neither game was close, and neither of the teams that beat them are very good in the national scheme of college football. If they suddenly get it together it would be a stunning reversal, seeing as how they’ve not only lost their first two games this year, they lost every single game last year, too: 0 fer 11.
  • What does it mean if Nathan Scheelhaase does or does not play? To my mind this may tell us more about Tim Beckman than it actually tells us about the state of Mr. Scheelhaase’s left ankle. Or maybe it will tell us more about what Beckman thinks of Scheelhaase. Scheelhaase is a true competitor and would love to play. He would have loved to play against ASU last week, but Beckman wisely kept him out of a non-conference pride game rather than risk an injury that could jeopardize the conference schedule. So we’ll see whether Beckman thinks Scheelhaase is the kind of player that  will benefit from coming out and getting some field time to soothe the wounds of being on the sidelines last time, or whether he’ll shelve him entirely and trust him to be able to get back to conference-game form with nothing more than playing time against Louisiana Tech.
  • The student center at Charleston Southern is known as the Strom Thurmond Center, after liver spot incarnate Strom Thurmond, the longest serving United States Senator in history. He ran for President in 1948 on a segregationist platform under the guise of “state’s rights,” claiming that he wasn’t a racist but just did not like Federal overreach. If this sounds familiar, it should, because “segregationist” is what they called it before people learned to lie and call it a “Tea Party.” Yes, Charleston Southern’s student center is named after the man who famously said “all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.” To the surprise of literally no one he was revealed after his death to have fathered a child with his family’s black housekeeper. This is all, sadly, true. Methinks the liver spot doth protest too much.

Other than these fun facts, trust me: you’re wasting your time scrutinizing this one. Will the defense rebound from their drubbing at the hands of Arizona State’s speed-scheme offense? It will be all but impossible to tell against the Buccaneers. Ditto whether the offense, under the direction of Scheelhaase, O’Toole, Osei, or a raffle winning fan, is truly better than they looked last week. You just won’t be able to tell, because there’s not an opponent to provide an adequate test to make any comparisons.

A moment of seriousness, though. None of this is meant to denigrate Charleston Southern. It’s a whole different size and type of school with a whole different culture. You can’t possibly expect a school with a total enrollment of about a quarter of Illinois’ freshman class to attract the kind of athletes and field the kind of team that it takes to play in the Big Ten. Scheduling these types of non-conference games just doesn’t do anything for anyone. It provides nothing meaningful for the teams and it provides nothing for the fans.

If anyone wants a really good example of the way that the college football system puts money ahead of the student athletes, it’s these games. The larger schools that are vying for bowl appearances schedule them because they want an easy win to pad their record for postseason positioning, and they pay the smaller school hundreds of thousands of dollars to come and play. The smaller schools get the increased exposure, but don’t kid yourself: it’s about the money. I used to think this was mutually beneficial: the athletics budget at a school like Charleston Southern is very small, and the money they get from these games goes really far towards covering that and making college athletics available for a lot of students, both in the football program and outside of it. That’s what I thought until I had a conversation with a team physician for one of those smaller football schools. He told me about a student-athlete who doesn’t have much use of one of his arms anymore: he suffered a severe nerve injury in his shoulder trying to tackle a running back in one of these guaranteed-money games. If a debilitating injury happens to a player at a school like Illinois, it makes the papers. If it happens at Charleston Southern, it never will. That student is collateral damage to the pursuit of big money football, and nobody outside the person’s friends and family is made to witness the true cost of the pursuit of the almighty bowl. When you see these games and see how oversized one team is compared to the other, it’s not just anti-competitive. It’s dangerous. If the schools really cared about the development of the student-athletes, they wouldn’t schedule them. Period.

No matter how you cut it, it’s wrong. Best to keep it light; focus on the trivia and the trivial. Because truth be told, you don’t want to think too hard about what the game really is and why it’s even happening. Illinois is going to pay Charleston Southern $400,000 to play the game. “An unscrupulous adventurer especially in politics or business.” I guess I see it now. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which team is the Buccaneers.

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