Tough nonconference schedule contributes to Illinois woes

The toughest nonconference schedule in the Big Ten for the last 10 years award goes to … Illinois.

From 2002 to 2011, Illinois’ nonconference opponents have had a 56.1 winning percentage, which is nearly 5 percent higher than Ohio State (51.6) and nearly 6 percent higher than Michigan (50.4) — two teams that consistently represent the Big Ten in BCS bowl games.

Surprised? I was too when I came across the stat. Then I took a closer look at the schedules and understood why Illini fans have had to suffer through seasonlong misery quite often since 2002.

Basically, the Illini aren’t giving themselves any chance for freebies.

With teams like Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan scheduling Notre Dame every year and Ohio State playing USC and Texas in past years, it’s hard to believe the Illini would hold this title for the Big Ten.

Illinois isn’t playing games of that historic-prestige caliber but rather has scheduled consistent winning programs over the last 10 years, including Missouri, UCLA, California, Western Michigan, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Arizona State and Louisiana Tech.

To put those opponents in a more recent perspective, every nonconference FBS opponent the Illini have played in the last three seasons made a bowl game the season in which Illinois played the team.

That stat appears headed toward making it four years in a row, as this season’s scheduled opponents — Western Michigan, Arizona State and Louisiana Tech — are projected to make bowl appearances.

When you start a season against Missouri and Northern Illinois like Illinois did in 2010 or with Arkansas State, Arizona State and Western Michigan like it did in 2011, Illinois is putting itself in a position to play competitive games out of the gate instead of waiting around for conference play.

Something that takes a little bit of the validity away from the nonconference opponents’ winning percentage the last decade is that Illinois hasn’t been at its best, failing to make a bowl game in seven of the last 10 seasons. But at the same time, competitive scheduling isn’t doing Illinois any favors, either.

The other element that makes this even more intriguing is how the ever-growing money grab in college football has schools trying to line up as many home games as they can fit for the utmost revenue.

Playing neutral site games don’t meet that current standard, and Illinois played Missouri in St. Louis six times to start six seasons since 2002 and never beat the Tigers  — sacrificing both revenue and a victory to get the exposure of a neutral site game.

The other factor playing into competitive nonconference games is the constant expansion. Due to its abrupt joining of the Big 12, West Virginia backed out of an agreement with Florida State to play a home and home series in 2012 and 2013.

With the changing conference landscape, it eventually seems the BCS teams will all be part of a few superconferences, and the increased competitive conferences will further diminish the frequency of watchable nonconference games.

This week’s night game against Louisiana Tech is an end to another tough nonconference stretch for the Illini.

But there’s no immediate end in sight as Illinois’ 2013 schedule starts with FCS opponent Southern Illinois before playing Cincinnati, Washington and Miami (Ohio) before a conference slate with a game in Nebraska and home contests against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State.

The future is vague for Illinois, as the nonconference schedules in 2014, 2015 and 2016 aren’t yet secured, but the Illini will travel to Seattle to play the Huskies in 2014 to return the favor of playing at Soldier Field in 2013.

Dan is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @welinanddealin.