College Football: Fighting Illini look to start season strong

By Doug Halberstadt
Sports Columnist

Fans of the University of Illinois Fighting Illini football team are hoping the 2012 season begins exactly the way the first half of the 2011 season did. The Illini opened up last year with six straight victories. They ripped off four straight wins against non-conference opponents during the month of September. They rode that wave into the month of October while picking up two more wins, this time against Big Ten opponents. Their first five games were played on their home turf at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill.

The team should express their gratitude to the schedule-makers. The 2012 season doesn’t look that much different than last year. The Illini play four of their first five games at home. Their season kicks off Saturday (Sept. 1) in Champaign against the Western Michigan Broncos.

They follow that with a road trip out West next weekend (Sept. 8) to meet the Arizona Sun Devils. Then, it’s back to Memorial Stadium for three straight. They have two more non-conference opponents (Saturday, Sept. 15, vs. Charleston Southern Buccaneers, and Saturday Sept. 22, vs. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs) before they take on their first Big Ten foe this year. The maligned Penn State Nittany Lions will come to Champaign Saturday, Sept. 29.

Their second conference game will find them back on the road. This time, it’s a short trip up to Madison, Wis., to take on the Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium Saturday, Oct. 6. That’s where the similarities to last year end.

I’m almost 100 percent certain the Illini will not rifle off six straight wins this year to begin their season. Winning on the road in Arizona and at Madison will be a tough task. If they come out of their first six games with a 4-2 record, I think that’ll be success.

The thing that’s way more important than mirroring their 2011 start is to make sure they don’t copy their 2011 finish. After flying out of the gate with six straight victories, the wheels fell off the Illini bandwagon — they proceeded to drop their next six straight. They finished the regular season with a 6-6 record.

Despite their second-half slump, the Illini did earn a bowl invitation. They defeated the UCLA Bruins 20-14 in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on New Year’s Eve to finish with a 7-6 record.

The problem is the Illini’s schedule for the second half of the 2012 season won’t be any easier than last season’s. They have road games against Michigan (Saturday, Oct. 13) and Ohio State (Saturday, Nov. 3), and they wrap up the 2012 campaign against the improved Northwestern Wildcats in Evanston Saturday, Nov. 24. They play home games against Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue.

Somehow, they are going to have to find a way to avoid a repeat of their 2011 second-half meltdown … I’m just not sure how. Figuring that out will fall upon the shoulders of their coaching staff. Those guys better put an extra sandwich or two in their lunch buckets — they’re going to be working some long hours.

Doug Halberstadt can be reached via e-mail at

From the Aug. 29-Sept. 4, 2012, issue

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