Heat Checks and Hail Marys – The Rush to Judgment

Mike Cagley, Co-Host Sports Spectacular and Big Sports Radio

September 12, 2023

It’s been a weird college season so far with Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders starting the single win last season Colorado Buffaloes off to a 2-0 record so far, including a victory over #17 TCU. Alabama already has a loss at home. The SEC is looking vulnerable in non-conference games. The Illini defense isn't living up to expectations.

Hail Mary #1 – Why Judge Colorado in September?

ESPN has turned the S into "Sanders" with nearly non-stop Coach Prime coverage. We’ve already been told by Coach Prime to apologize for not believing in Deion. I’m not certain if everyone was “against” Deion, but it appears he loves to play this angle up. He’s still the best cover cornerback I’ve ever seen. He dominated a third of the field for the Cowboys for years. Clearly opposing teams had to make him a primary consideration when game planning against the Cowboys defense. He made a bunch of money in free agency and in broadcasting. As a coach he's had success at high school and the small college levels. He's started off hot at Colorado in the last season of the Pac 12 conference.

Deion also unceremoniously asked a lot of existing players to leave the program. Many watching from the outside felt sympathy for players who had secured scholarships and families who thought their sons had college paid for as a Buffalo athlete. Imagine suddenly finding out these players could be out in the cold financially. That is a huge deal, especially for low-income families during tough economic times. One suspects that other coaches with less charisma and a lesser degree of fame would’ve experienced much more blow back than Deion dealt with. Many opinions were grounded in being more “for” the kids who were forced out than were “against” Deion.

In any event, this college football season is only 2 games old. Deion has done an amazing job on the first sixth (16.7%) of the 2023 college football season. His son has stepped up to compete at a higher level of competition and has dominated against the highest levels of college football. Everything appears to be going fantastically - for two games.

What I don’t understand is the burning desire for Coach Prime to be congratulated for a great season with only 2 games played. I feel the same confusion for those in the media who feel the need to judge the program right now, when 10 regular season games are still to be played. Both views are pointless in my mind.

Colorado players, fans and coaches have a chance to experience one of the more magical seasons of all-time, assuming the team can maintain or even improve their play. If the team finishes the season with even a winning record, it is quite an accomplishment after coming off a single win season. If they get on a big winning streak, it would be reminiscent of a year like the 1983 Fighting Illini who were picked at the bottom of the Big Ten and went 9-0 on their way to a Rose Bowl.

It must be noted that the Buffaloes still must play #13 Oregon, #5 USC, #24 UCLA, #16 Oregon State, #22 Washington State, and #12 Utah. With these teams all playing in the Pac 12, it is mathematically improbable they will all be so highly ranked later in the season when they play Colorado. These teams will knock each other off during the conference season. Even if the teams on the Colorado schedule aren’t as highly ranked when they play the Buffaloes, it doesn’t matter. Going 3-3 against that difficult of a schedule would be a success.

In today’s environment of rushing to be the first person to make the earliest hot take, I’ll wait and see how Deion’s team does before anointing him the next big thing in coaching. But there’s no doubt the man knows how to start a season off well. He’s also laying the foundation for a huge recruiting season come signing day in February. His biggest successes could come in year two and year three.

Instead of feeling angst and that the world is against them, Buffalo fans should sit back and enjoy an exciting season that didn’t appear on anyone’s radar until Coach Prime was hired by AD Rick George. Even then with all the roster turnover, few would’ve bet on the season starting this well. The accolades for actual accomplishments will take care of themselves at the end of the season. Or they won’t. No need to rush to judgment.

Hail Mary #2 – The Illini Football Program is Wrecked? Seriously?

There is a small undercurrent in Illini football fandom that view the Kansas loss, coupled with the difficultly of the Toledo victory as a sign that the 2023 Illini football season is nearing life support. The ghost of past Illini failures has come to haunt Memorial Stadium on their yearly appointed rounds. With Penn State arriving for Saturday’s game, it seems to a segment of Illini fans as if the stars and planets are aligned against the Illini.

Like the Hail Mary #1 above, this need to be the first person to throw some dirt on the metaphorical Illini football coffin mystifies me. As a life-long Illini fan, I understand the pain that we older Illini fans have experienced over the years. Heck, since John Mackovic left in 1991, the Illini have only had 8 winning seasons. As a comparison, since 1951, the Ohio State Buckeyes have only posted 5 losing seasons. These scars are part of why Illini fans have a paranoia that can best be described as “it's not paranoia if someone is really out to get me.”

I do have a few reasons to believe that the Illini season isn’t over – aside from the purely logical reason that there are ten games left to play and we should wait to see what happens.

  • Bret Bielema has been a coach for 15 years. That means he’s been the head coach in the SEC and Big Ten for 14 full seasons. Of those 14 full seasons, he’s only had 3 losing records. Two of the three losing records were in his first seasons at Arkansas and Illinois when he was turning around programs going in the wrong direction. The best predictor of the future is the past. Bielema knows how to win in the toughest conferences in the country. He will make adjustments with his staff, develop his players, and win more games.
  • The Big Ten East is a beast. Looking at the schedule and only seeing one of the three juggernauts (Michigan, Ohio State & Penn State) of the Big Ten East playing the Illini is a huge positive. The forces of the universe are not all aligned against the Illini. They drew Maryland and Indiana instead of Ohio State and Michigan. There is good in the universe.
  • The Big Ten West has a few good teams – Iowa and Wisconsin are at least assumed to be Top 25 caliber teams (though I'm not sold on Wisconsin, yet). Minnesota, Purdue, Nebraska, and Northwestern are all winnable games. There are no super teams that one can automatically say the Illini will lose to, as even Iowa's offense is as yet unproven. There is still plenty of time for a coach famous for player development to continually improve his players and earn additional hard-fought victories.
  • The culture that Bielema has been building over his two plus seasons at Illinois has been meticulously erected to support long term success. It will be tested. It won't be easy. We will see if he's had time to construct a mindset that is anchored in fighting until the end.

Nothing changes the fact that Penn State is an extremely talented team coming to town on Saturday. The Illini will have to shock the world to pull off a victory against this team. They have done so before, and recently to boot. One only needs to look back to two years ago when the 2-5 Illini arrived at 5-1 Penn State (ranked #7) and left as the victors in a 9 OT classic 20-18. My suspicion is both head coaches will note that the Illini are being written off, again. Penn State is ranked #7, again. The odds are heavily in favor of the Nittany Lions, again.

Yet, even in the event of an Illini loss, the season isn’t over. With 9 games remaining after this weekend and the Illini only facing one ranked team on the schedule, I’d be severely disappointed if the players and team quit on their season. In fact, I’ll go on the record saying it won’t happen.

Time will tell.


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