On October 5, 1996, the Illinois Fighting Illini beat the Indiana Hoosiers 46-43 in overtime. This was one of the first overtime games in college football history and one of the final games ever coached by Bill Mallory at Indiana. (He was fired after the season and replaced with Cam Cameron. That didn't go well.) I covered the game for the Daily Illini -- which mostly consisted of stifling cheers from the press box -- and it was exciting, such as it was; I'd never seen an overtime in college football before. It felt good to be an Illini football fan.
After that win, Illinois lost 18 consecutive games.
Last year, under new coach Tim Beckman, Illinois beat Western Michigan 24-7 in its season opener. After that, they lost every FBS game they would play; they only came within 14 points once. Paul Myerberg, the excellent college football writer for USA TODAY Sports, began his daily ranking of the 125 FBS teams back on May 6 with Georgia State. It took him just two weeks to get to Illinois at No. 110. Yesterday, friend of the podcast Matt Hinton ranked every college football team on Deadspin; he had us all the way up at No. 100.
On Saturday, college football kicks off in earnest, and there are so many terrific matchups. Georgia-Clemson. LSU-TCU. Alabama-Virginia Tech. But the game I'm clearing out my schedule for, like a stupid dope, is Illinois-Southern Illinois at noon ET.
This is moronic. This is a game so unloved that:
- It's not only limited to the Big Ten Network, it's actually shuffled off to an alternate channel. Here in Athens, I can only watch it online, which, particularly the first week of the season, when they don't have all the bugs out, is unlikely to work.
- This week's issue of USA TODAY Sports Weekly previewed every FBS game, from Indiana-Indiana State to Southern-Houston … except for Illinois-Southern Illinois.
- You can get into the game for six bucks, and the most expensive ticket, right down on the eighth row at the 50-yard-line, is $100. (To contrast: The cheapest ticket to the Georgia-Clemson game, in the very top row of the very top deck, is $199.)
- The crowd is expected to number about 30,000 -- in a venue that holds nearly 61,000 -- and they're only likely to get that much because of a "family 4-pack" promotion, which gets you four tickets, four hot dogs and four drinks for $49. I'm not sure the University of Illinois doesn't lose money off that promotion.
And yet there I will be, like a sucker, wearing an Illini jersey, like a dork, sitting at my computer and watching every minute of their game against an FCS school whose primary contribution to society has been kicking off the comedic career of Saul Goodman. (OK, also Shaft.)
This isn't just a waste of time as a person: It's a waste of time as a college football fan. We've been waiting months for real, live college football to begin again… and I celebrate it by watching a lousy team play a lousier team in front of a half-empty stadium of bored Midwesterners. (On a tiny laptop screen.) This is like being allowed one concert a year and spending it watching a baby bang paint cans together.
But I'll do it, because Illinois is my team. The notion of being a sports fan is a ridiculous one, one that makes no logical sense in any other context. But we do it because of all that we bring to it: We're the ones who give it any meaning at all. If you don't care about Illinois football -- and of course here I speak to 99.99999999 percent of humanity -- that game Saturday is only slightly less boring to watch than staring at a blank screen. But because I do, because I bring my own history to it -- the 1984 Rose Bowl team with Jack Trudeau, David Williams and Cap Boso, the 1990 win over eventual champion Colorado, the wild 2007 Juice Williams road win over Ohio State -- it means everything to me. It matters more than all those games involving teams that are halfway decent at football. Or at least those in the top 100.
This is why college football is so powerful, why it seems sure to survive even though, logically speaking, it probably shouldn't. (It's dangerous, it's fundamentally corrupt and it's impossible to imagine it being invented today had it not already existed for 100 years. Hey, let's start a league where we have college students run into each other, for free, so that we are entertained and so that a bunch of middle-aged white men can become a little bit more wealthy.) When I am watching an Illinois game, I am not watching a terrible team, at least not in my brain. I'm watching my history, my past, my upbringing, my emotional investment … I'm reliving all that, my need to be connected to something more than myself. This isn't a terrible team; it's just another chapter in the ongoing story. It is hope. It is knowing that if Illinois is someday a great team, and the college football world is ignoring Georgia-Clemson games to watch Illinois play a huge Big Ten game, I will remember watching that awful game in late August 2013 when Illinois barely beat an FCS team and even the announcers were falling asleep. It means more to me than it does to you. Your team means more to you than it does to me. But it means so much for both of us. That's why this is so powerful. That's why we wait all summer for games to start. This is why it's never going away.
This is what I'll be telling myself, anyway, while I spend three precious hours of the short time we have on this planet watching Illinois play Southern Illinois on my computer, alone, as children frolic and play somewhere in the distance, as tectonic plates shift, as the world spins into the forever, as time winds slowly down until it is all over.