Illinois, Michigan matchup will mark history for college football

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Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh encourages his players coming off the field late in the first half against Penn State at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. Michigan won, 49-10. (Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

By Cole Henke, Staff Writer

Saturday’s match-up between Michigan and Illinois football will be the 95th game between the two programs.

But there is one first happening this weekend that will overshadow all subsequent games in this series — it will be the first time ever that two college football teams led by former Super Bowl coaches will play against each other.

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith took the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl in 2006. The Bears lost to the Indianapolis Colts.

Smith spent some time as an assistant coach at the college level, but most of his coaching career has been in the NFL. His job at Illinois is his first collegiate head coaching job.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh’s head coaching career started with the University of San Diego, where he coached for three seasons. In 2011, he went on to the NFL, where he coached the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012 and lost to the Baltimore Ravens. In 2014, he went back to his alma mater to coach.

With Michigan favored by 36 points as of Wednesday, the Smith-Harbaugh showdown is the big narrative of this game. But according to Smith, the story does not go much deeper than the surface.

“I don’t know much about (Harbaugh) to be truthful,” Smith said. “I know about him as a coach now. I know he was a quarterback for the Chicago Bears. But that’s it.”

Smith and Harbaugh’s NFL coaching careers overlapped from 2011-2014, and the two only coached against each other once at the NFL level — Harbaugh’s 49ers beat Smith’s Bears 32-7 in 2012. 

“He is a great coach,” Harbaugh said at his weekly press conference. “He is an outstanding person. I don’t know him real well, but I know a lot of people who do, and they speak very highly of him.”

Smith and the Illini are prepping for one of their toughest tests of the season. Michigan is tied for first in the Big Ten East and is ranked No. 3 in the nation.

Running back Kendrick Foster said there are plenty of ways to look at this game.

The Illini are the Wolverines’ homecoming opponent, giving the opportunity to not just bring the Wolverine’s undefeated season to a stop but to do it in front of one of the biggest crowds they will play for all season.

While winning the game is what he is focused on, Foster is still aware of the hype surrounding the two head coaches and would not be surprised if, despite not knowing Harbaugh well, his coach wanted this one even more than usual.

“He probably does (have an edge),” Foster said. “But it is not only him. We all have an edge right now. We want to do well and prove that we are better than we have been presenting on the field.”

Defensive end Dawuane Smoot knows Saturday will be first time two former Super Bowl coaches’ teams play against each other at the college level, but he said his team can’t get caught up in that.

According to Smoot, if the Illini want to have a chance against a top team in the nation like Michigan, they “can’t get distracted by the hype,” and the Illini “just need to go out there and play football.”

Smith has the same attitude. He thinks of the game in a position-by-position competition. His quarterback is competing against the opponent’s quarterback. His linebackers are going against the opponent’s linebackers. And he is going against the opponent’s head coach.

He knows he is competing against Harbaugh, but in the end, everything besides what happens on the field is null to him.

“I have done this a few times,” Smith said. “It is just another game as far as I am concerned. (Coaches) don’t play. When I say going against, I mean I want our football team to beat their football team, but there is no ‘me against other head coaches’ at the time. I’m just interested in what the 11 guys on the field are doing.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this article said that the “Harbaugh and Smith have never coached against each other at any level.” The two actually coached against each other at the NFL level in 2012. The Daily Illini regrets the error.