Big Ten

Big Ten preview: Illini have bought in to Lovie, a positive sign for recruiting

Big Ten preview: Illini have bought in to Lovie, a positive sign for recruiting

The Illini have bought in to what Lovie Smith has planned. How couldn’t they?

After a year of head-coaching turmoil featuring the firing of Tim Beckman a week before the 2015 season started and Bill Cubit’s holding of the head-coaching job for just a few months, a known commodity like Smith brought some stability — and more importantly some credibility — to Illinois football.

But the players’ embracing of Smith and his all-star staff is not just a positive development for the 2016 season. It shows how future players might feel about Smith, and how he can use his program’s new No. 1 selling point, a proven winner at the NFL level, to bring in better recruits than Illini fans and observers are used to seeing.

“It’s been a good feeling, him coming from the NFL to us,” sophomore running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn said during Big Ten Media Days. “Just being around a coach who knows what it takes to get to the NFL is a great experience.”

And this from Dawuane Smoot, who Smith pegged earlier this offseason as a potential first-round pick in the NFL Draft.

“It feels good just knowing that he’s been there before and he’s brought people up like Julius Peppers and stuff,” he said. “It’s great hearing that from him.”

Smith’s NFL resume now allows Illinois to talk to any recruit it wants to, and that’s especially helpful in state. The Illini haven’t had much consistent success bringing in the Land of Lincoln’s top recruits, but when the former Bears head coach comes calling, it’s hard to say know.

“We have a great university to recruit to,” Smith said. “Your education is second to none, degree means quite a lot. And the football part, of course, is coming, but all we’ve asked people to do is give us a chance, look at how we’re going to do things. We’ve gotten that, the response has been how you want it to be. We have a great recruiting base right here in Chicago. There are a lot of great athletes here. From my time way back in college to my time here as a head football coach I knew about the high school football here, and if we can just take care of our own right here. We’re the flagship university of our state, so we need to be able to do some things close to home.

“I’ve gotten that from a lot of people. It’s ‘Lovie, we feel like we know you. You’ve been in our homes every Sunday for a lot of years.’ That’s a part of the lure to come back to a place that we do kind of call home, familiar surroundings. So that’s what we’ve gotten. They’re listening to what we’re saying. The first step, of course, is getting people on campus. We’ve had a great response of people coming to watch our practices, spring ball and just take visits down to our university. Once you get there on campus, you’ll really like it.”

But even independent of his local ties, Smith’s status as a successful NFL head coach is mighty appealing to kids. As Vaughn and Smoot illustrated, the goal to get to the NFL becomes a heck of a lot more attainable when learning from a guy who coached numerous Pro Bowlers and took a team to the Super Bowl.

As far as this year’s team goes, Smith brings a different attitude than his predecessors, and comments from players — which didn’t reference either Beckman or Cubit — seemed to indicate an appreciation for a more relaxed atmosphere, something that one would guess didn’t exist under Beckman, who was booted for mistreating players and making them play injured.

“He’s just a more calm and relaxed coach,” Vaughn said. “We haven’t even seen him yell yet. We’re all waiting for it. It’s calm around the facility now.”

One would imagine it’d be difficult for players who have experienced nothing but mediocrity in Champaign to not get excited and hopeful with Smith’s arrival. This season should be a case study in how to maintain that enthusiasm while perhaps not racking up an overabundance of first-year wins.

It’ll also be interesting to see what recruits think about it, but for now, the current crop of Illini is most definitely on board. Again, after what these players have been through, how could they not be?

“I think if a change is made, someone assumes there needs to be a culture change. For us, I had nothing to do with that. We came in new, and we’re installing our culture, how we’re going to do things, how we’re going to win football games. That’s what we’ve done,” Smith said. “We’ve placed a big emphasis on that. Players have embraced it, and they’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do.”

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?