Nov. 21—CHAMPAIGN — Win or lose Saturday against Northwestern, it is going to be a tough week for Illinois football coach Bret Bielema.
Because no matter what happens in the battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy (2:30 p.m. on BTN) at Memorial Stadium, the third-year Illinois boss is going to say goodbye to 24 seniors.
Even the thought of it got the waterworks flowing during Monday's press conference at Memorial Stadium.
Four of the players — Caleb Griffin, Ezekiel Holmes, Julian Pearl and Jordyn Slaughter — spent six years at the school.
"I've only been blessed to be with them the three (seasons)," Bielema said. "One of the things I've always said during this whole process is for the young men that were here before I got here, I always try to meet their parents and try to be around when they're around. Those guys' journey has been very unique. They had a coaching change.
"They've handled it. They've embraced it. I hear those guys say things about what we've done for them, so that's cool."
A handful of the departing players, or more, will find themselves in the NFL next season.
"When you get to that point where you jump, you need to be as best prepared physically and mentally to make commitment," Bielema said.
Four guys off the 2022 team were picked in the 2023 draft. Others signed as free agents, including New York Giants quarterback Tommy DeVito, who is coming off a monster performance Sunday in 31-19 win against the Commanders in Landover, Md.
"I shot him and his dad a message," Bielema said. "His dad says, 'Coach, I am literally floating back to New Jersey.' It's fun to see those kids have that success."
Of course, Bielema wants to spend more time with the current seniors. To do that, Illinois (5-6, 3-5 Big Ten) will need to beat the Wildcats (6-5, 4-4) to become bowl eligible.
"When we came here, we talked being in postseason play very year," Bielema said. "Obviously last year being able to achieve it. I wish this year we were at a number where that already happened, but it hasn't. It's a part of this week."
Hard to tell where a sixth win will send Illinois. Because the team has only been to two bowls the past five seasons, the potential destination is wide open.
The Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit tries to match the MAC champion against a team from the Big Ten. In the past decade that has only happened four times, with Minnesota playing twice at Ford Field and Maryland and Rutgers going once each. Maryland is the only Big Ten team to lose in that span, dropping a 36-30 decision to Boston College in the 2016 game.
Toledo is playing for the MAC title against Miami (Ohio) on Dec. 2 and some assume a win by the Rockets will eliminate Illinois from Quick Lane consideration. The teams met in the season opener, with the Illini winning 30-28 on Griffin's field goal in the final seconds.
That loss will likely be the only blemish on the season for Toledo. So if I am the MAC, I am begging the bowl to invite Illinois so its team can get revenge.
The Toledo factor could be moot if the recently-ranked Rockets move into the top position among Group of Five champions, which would send it to one of the New Year's Six bowls and open Detroit for another MAC team.
Toledo will likely climb into the College Football Playoff rankings this week and trail only Tulane and Liberty among the Group of Five. Both of those teams face obstacles the final two weeks of the season.
The team up North
Will be on the schedule next season. And the season after.
And the season after that.
Illinois-Northwestern matchups are here forever.
Or until the Big Ten adds more schools.
Compare that to the team Illinois just finished playing, Iowa, which won't be back on the slate again until 2026 (home) and 2028 (away). Next year's Illini freshmen will only play at Kinnick Stadium if they redshirt one season. Weird.
Before Bielema arrived in C-U, the Northwestern game had been a major problem for Illinois, which dropped six in a row.
Under Bielema, the team has dominated the last two, winning by a combined 88-27.
"The first thing we talked about was respecting Northwestern and what they've done," Bielema said.
But nobody expected what was coming this season in Evanston. Long-time coach Pat Fitzgerald was fired because of a hazing scandal. In stepped new hire David Braun, the former North Dakota State defensive coordinator.
Braun has pulled off a miracle in Evanston, becoming bowl eligible in his first season. I wrote going into the year, the Wildcats would be lucky to win two.
Northwestern rewarded Braun for his fine work, naming him the permanent head coach. Then his team went out and beat Purdue to get to six victories.
Bielema, who seems to know every coach in the FBS, has had little interaction with Braun. They met briefly at the Big Ten media kickoff in the summer and that was it.
"Obviously when he got hired, we began to do our research in what he's brought and what he'd done," Bielema said. "This year, as they progressed, I kept an eye on it from afar and just been very impressed with his ability to engage."
Bielema watches press conferences with the coaches he is about to face.
"They believe in improving every day and that's exactly what they've done," he said.
Staying with Paddock
Bielema announced after the loss to Iowa that transfer senior John Paddock will start the finale.
My assumption is that Paddock will also start the bowl game. If there is one. Hard to imagine replacing a guy who led you to three wins in the last four with the only loss by two on the road against a ranked team.