Smile Politely

Illinois lost. And nobody cares anymore.

It is staggering to think that Illinois lost by 20 points to Minnesota, in a game they were favored to win by 14 points. Yes, Illinois was a two-touchdown favorite, and the oddsmakers presumably were aware that the Illini had lost 5 straight games.

To me, this was hands down the most disappointing loss of the season (Purdue is second). Minnesota had struggled mightily all year, but they looked like a polished team against the Illini. Whereas the defense had looked quite solid for the majority of the last five games even as the offense proved to be anemic or (worse) counterproductive, not so against the Golden Gophers. The defense was continually unable to tackle Minnesota’s running quarterback. As for the offense, you don’t really want to look into it. Suffice it to say that the best thing to come out of the offense was the fact that our wide receiver, Ryan Lankford, did an astounding job with his rugby-style punting.

When the best thing you can say about your offense is how well your wide receiver punted, you’ve said all you need to say.

And, shockingly, nobody really cares about any of that any more. Many Illini fans got a biggie crossed off their Christmas list when the shopping season had barely begun.

Ron Zook is no longer the head football coach at the University of Illinois. And no, I don’t mean that he won’t be the head football coach at the end of this year, if Illinois is selected for a bowl game. On Sunday, it was announced that Ron Zook is no longer the head football coach. Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning has assumed head coaching duties, effective immediately, and including any potential bowl appearance.

So what about that bowl? Good question.

The bowl selection process is far too complicated to go into in complete detail here. Illinois will not be playing in a BCS Bowl game, so we shall save our consideration of those rules for a later (hopefully not too much later) date.

For our purposes, here’s what you need to know.

The Big Ten Conference has contractual relationships with a number of bowl games, where the bowls agree to pick from among the Big Ten teams that are “bowl eligible”: having those magic 6 wins, assuming a 12 game season.

This is not unique to the Big Ten, or to any particular bowl. Most conferences participate in these arrangements, and most of the bowl games do as well.

But there are two catches that could mean Illinois’ season is already over. The first such catch is that, while the bowl games have an assigned picking order (that is, after the Rose Bowl, the Capitol One Bowl picks from the Big Ten, then the Outback Bowl picks, &c), there is no requirement that the bowl pick the team with the highest ranking or best record. They are free to select any bowl eligible team.

And the second catch: the Big Ten has more bowl eligible teams this year than they have contractual ties to bowl games. In fact, the Big Ten has a staggering 10 bowl eligible teams (only Indiana and, you guessed it, Minnesota failed to get 6 wins).  So it is quite possible that Illinois may still be standing with their backs on the wall when all of the bowls have picked their dance partners.

But the flip side is that there are other dance partners out there if you look. When a bowl game has a conference relationship, but their conference does not produce enough bowl eligible teams to fill the spot, they are free to pick regardless of that team’s conference.

As a potential bowl dance partner, Illinois has some obvious disadvantages. The first one that comes to mind is the fact that they have lost six consecutive games, including the most recent 20 point loss to perennial Big Ten bottom dweller Minnesota. The fact that we finished 2-6 in our conference is not helpful either. Once the skid began, Illinois seemed to get worse week-to-week rather than better. This is not all that attractive to a bowl game.

But, these factors assume that the people who choose the teams for bowl games are really all that interested in the product on the field. In reality, the entire system is about money. If a particular school has a big alumni base with a reputation for traveling to see their team in big games, nobody cares about the fact that they might not play all that well. So, if you’re the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, Illinois is a pretty attractive pick. Especially when you consider that you were contractually obligated to take Army if they got six wins (they didn’t, even though they beat the Northwestern Purple Cats), and are obligated to take a team from the ACC, WAC or MAC after that, assuming any remain. Note: this was not a randomly chosen example: many are projecting Illinois to get picked up by the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. It’s New Year’s Eve and in San Francisco.  Others are projecting the Illini to go to the R + L Carrier New Orleans Bowl, December 17th in New Orleans.

So, why did Mike Thomas, the new athletic director, fire Ron Zook before any of this was settled? Why fire the head coach with potentially only one more game left in the season? My vote was that this is all about the bowl. Having a new head coach (even an interim) gives otherwise recalcitrant fans, who may not have been willing to travel to a bowl, a reason to have hope and get out to support the team.

And this is not merely a pride thing—going to a less prestigious bowl raises the serious specter  that the trip to the bowl results in the school losing money. Potentially a whole lot of money. Read how, here:

So the Ron Zook era comes to an end. Illinois fans will be watching all the conference championships and other games next weekend just for fun, and to see how the bowl projections stand up.

We’ll be covering how the bowl race shakes out, so check back in for that. And, of course, we’ll be keeping you abreast on the hunt for the next head coach.

In the meantime, there’s always basketball.

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