Don’t think of Spring Game as Illini football’s season opener

Illinois’ Wes Lunt (12) looks to pass the ball during the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl against Louisiana Tech at Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, Texas on Dec. 26, 2014. The Illini lost 35-18.

Illini fans are just like all sports fans: they yearn for the promise of a new season.

A new season brings fresh faces, returns experienced ones, shines up old stadiums and carries with it an unblemished record.

Let’s be clear: The 2015 Illinois football season does not start with Saturday’s Orange and Blue Spring Game.

That doesn’t mean head coach Tim Beckman won’t break out his “beans and weenies” expression (he already did once at Tuesday’s press conference — beans and weenies being the dinner of the losing team, the winners eat steak).

That doesn’t mean Illini nation can’t get excited about new co-defensive coordinator Greg Phair, who said Tuesday about his defensive game plan that, “we’re playing as hard as we can.”

And lastly, it doesn’t mean that Illini nation won’t and can’t show up Saturday evening and get excited about the upcoming Illinois season.

But let me repeat: The season doesn’t start Saturday.

The White team is beginning the game with 17 points. That fact in itself is a pretty good indication that Saturday shouldn’t be the date circled on Illini fans’ calendars. The date that should be circled is Sept. 4, when Illinois hosts Kent State under the lights of Memorial Stadium in its season opener.

Why?

Because the team playing Saturday will look a lot different from the one that will storm out of the home locker room in the fall.

Big junior defensive lineman Teko Powell won’t play Saturday, although you can guarantee he’ll be on the field in September. The defensive line will rotate three outside players and three inside players who will play for both the Orange and White teams.

Several members of the Illini’s offensive line, including to-be-freshman Gabe Megginson — Tim Beckman’s highest-ranked recruit ever — won’t play Saturday (Megginson isn’t even on campus yet).

The STAR position on defense still isn’t solidified, although sophomore James Crawford has seen the most action with the top group.

And the Illini coaching staff still hasn’t decided on a backup to running back Josh Ferguson.

Beckman and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit have said that if the season started today, freshman early-enrollee Dre Brown would have the No. 2 spot, but what about Ke’Shawn Vaughn? The four-star running back and 2014 Gatorade Tennessee Football Player of the Year isn’t going to be in Champaign until the fall.

Last spring there was a main storyline to the game: the ongoing quarterback “battle.” Wes Lunt, Riley O’Toole and Aaron Bailey all competed for the starting spot in a drawn-out competition that ended the way most people thought it would: with Lunt as the winner.

College football is a war of attrition: if you can’t leave early for the draft, you get hurt, you graduate or you transfer.

O’Toole will graduate and Bailey is headed to Northern Iowa, leaving Lunt locked in as the starter. There’s no series of “Illinois QB” YouTube videos or water cooler debates about Bailey’s athleticism or Lunt’s arm or O’Toole’s experience.

So on Saturday when “kickoff” rolls around (teams will start at the 27-yard line), just remember, the real season starts in September.

Saturday’s game is an opportunity for young guys to get their reps, make some noise in front of fans and fly around a little bit. It’ll be interesting to see who Lunt throws to with the absence of Mike Dudek and Malik Turner, but make no mistake, the real season starts in September.

Lunt might throw a bad pass or two and his receivers might have a couple of drops, but when Saturday’s Spring Game ends, the Illini’s 2015 record will still be 0-0.

Peter is a sophomore in Media.

[email protected]

@pbaileywells