Photo courtesy of Illinois athletics
The college football season officially gets underway on Saturday.
Week 0 doesn’t exactly present a slate that will have fans on the edge of their seats. There are only five FBS games and only three Power 5 teams taking the field.
The lone match-up of Power 5 teams and lone conference match-up takes place in Champaign, Ill. Illinois will play host to Nebraska for a Big Ten showdown.
Bret Bielema will make his debut as head coach of the Fighting Illini while Scott Frost begins his fourth season at the helm in Lincoln. Frost may be on the hot seat after going a combined 12-20 over his first three seasons.
Frost was a popular hire when he was picked to make his return to Lincoln. The Lincoln native played quarterback for the Cornhuskers and helped the team win a share of the 1997 national championship. As a head coach, Frost led UCF to a perfect season in 2017 and a Colley Matrix national championship.
Nebraska has long been one of college football’s most recognizable brands. Known for a rich history and the vaunted “Blackshirt” defense, the Cornhuskers claim five national championships and 46 conference titles.
It’s been a long time since Illinois was regarded for its football prowess. The Fighting Illini have not had a winning season since 2011 and have claimed just one outright conference championship in the last 37 years.
Believe it or not however, that conference crown was more recent than Nebraska’s most recent conference title.
A Season to Remember
For Illinois, the year was 2001. The Fighting Illini had gone just 16-29 over their first four years under head coach Ron Turner, which included a winless campaign in 1997.
In 2001 however, the Fighting Illini put together a 10-2 season and finished 7-1 in Big Ten play. With an offense led by the passing combination of Kurt Kittner and wide receiver Brandon Lloyd and a defense headlined by standout safety Eugene Wilson, Illinois put together a season to remember.
After a 3-0 start, Illinois suffered its lone loss of the regular season in its Big Ten opener at Michigan, 45-20. The Fighting Illini circled the wagons to win their next seven games — all in conference — including three decided by seven points or less.
Michigan would lose to rivals Michigan State and Ohio State to finish a game back of Illinois. The Wolverines entered the final week of the regular season needing only to beat the Buckeyes to secure a Rose Bowl berth, but fell, 26-20. Illinois was able to secure the conference crown with a 34-28 win over Northwestern.
A Sour Ending
During that era, the Big Ten champion typically played in the Rose Bowl. In 2001 however, the Rose Bowl was designated as the BCS’ national championship game for the first time. Instead, Miami and Nebraska played for the title in Pasadena. It was the first time since the 1945 season that a Big Ten team did not play in the Rose Bowl.
Illinois settled for a trip to New Orleans. Ranked No. 7 in the country, Illinois came up short in the Sugar Bowl to SEC champion LSU. The Tigers were led by head coach Nick Saban, who was coaching in his first major bowl game.
Kittner passed for four touchdowns in the contest, but the Illinois defense had no answer for LSU’s Rohan Davey. Davey passed for 444 yards and three touchdowns while Domanick Davis added four more scores on the ground in a 47-34 LSU victory.
Illinois would go on to finish 12th in the final polls. It has finished ranked just once since and that came in 2007 under Ron Zook.
The Fighting Illini went 9-4, and because Big Ten champion Ohio State was playing for the BCS National Championship, were awarded a Rose Bowl bid. They fell to USC to close the 2007 campaign, 49-17.
More Than Two Decades and Counting
For Nebraska, the last conference championship came in 1999 as a member of the Big 12. Nebraska won five straight Big 8 titles in its final half-decade of existence before winning two of the first four Big 12 Championships.
The Cornhuskers defeated Texas 22-6 for the 1999 conference crown before topping reigning national champion Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl, 31-21. Nebraska finished 12-1, No. 3 in the AP Poll and No. 2 in the Coaches. Since then, Nebraska had been a conference bride’s maid but never a bride.
The Cornhuskers played for Big 12 Championships in 2006, 2009 and 2010. After falling to Oklahoma 21-7 in 2006, Nebraska lost consecutive games to Texas and the Sooners, respectively, in consecutive years by a combined four points. Against Texas in 2009, Nebraska led with one second remaining, but kicker Hunter Lawrence knocked through the winning field goal to give the Longhorns a 13-12 victory.
In its second year in the Big Ten in 2012, Nebraska reached the conference title game under Bo Pelini. Unfortunately for the Cornhuskers, they allowed 539 yards rushing in a 70-31 loss to Wisconsin.
The head coach of the Badgers at the time was the same opposing coach that the Cornhuskers will see on Saturday: Bret Bielema.