Andy Olson – Indy Writer
The college football season may be over, but speculation season just kicked off. The Illinois State Redbirds football team finished the 2015 campaign 10-3 and were co-champions of the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
Coming off a season that ended in a loss in the National Championship game, the Redbirds seem to be entering a stretch of being one of the top teams in FCS football.
There’s a phenomenon surrounding really good FCS teams. People always wonder how well the team would fair against FBS-level opponents.
In 2013, AP voters were so sure that the North Dakota State Bison would dominate at the FBS level they ranked NDSU 29th in the final AP Top 25. That is a record high for any team in the FCS.
With Illinois State posting back-to-back postseason campaigns, this reporter got the idea to analyze how well the Redbirds would have done being on a higher level.
But not just any higher level, I’m talking about bumping ISU all the way up to Big Ten competition. Now there are multiple reasons why this can’t and wouldn’t happen.
First of all, Hancock Stadium is too small to be an FBS stadium. All top tier schools have to average a home attendance of at least 15,000. Hancock Stadium’s capacity is capped just over 13,000.
Secondly, the Big Ten isn’t looking to expand right now. After their 2014 expansion, the Big Ten seems content with 14 members for right now. They would also need another school to join the Big Ten at the same time for consistency’s sake. The Big Ten is a top-five conference, so if they were looking to expand they would most likely go after schools already at the FBS level.
But let’s say none of that mattered. Let’s say Hancock Stadium got (another) facelift and can now hold plenty of fans. Let’s say Notre Dame wanted to come and join the Big Ten with ISU.
Let’s say Illinois State played in the Big Ten last season.
First things first, the Redbirds did play a Big Ten opponent last season. And it wasn’t too pretty.
On the opening weekend, Illinois State fell to an undiscovered and unranked Iowa Hawkeye team 31-14. That seems competitive but unfortunately for the Redbirds, both scores came after Iowa pulled the first team defense.
It’s not starting well for the Redbirds as they’re already 0-1.
To keep things fair, Illinois State will be compared to every single team in the conference as we don’t know what teams they would’ve played and which ones they would not have. So without further ado…
Illinois (5-7; 2-6)
What a rivalry this would be. Illinois v. Illinois State. In my opinion, they should be playing this game right now even with the different conferences. These schools are so close together and very close in skill level. If either Athletic Director is looking to spice up their schedule, this would be a good way of doing so.
Illinois’ season can be best described as inconsistent. Even their blowouts never looked like a sure thing. The two teams share a common opponent in Western Illinois.
The Fighting Illini had a great defensive game as they stomped on WIU 44-0. The Redbirds also played a good game and beat them 48-28.
These two teams are pretty similar to each other structure wise. The only clear advantage is at the head coaching spot for the Redbirds. Brock Spack has been at the helm of ISU for a lot of years now while Illinois is still searching for a head coach identity after firing Tim Beckman a couple of days before the season started.
Advantage: Illinois State
Indiana (6-7; 2-6)
This game should be a little easier to call. While Indiana did make it to a bowl game, they did almost lose their opening game to Southern Illinois. The Hoosiers ended up pulling out a 48-47 victory.
ISU’s experience with the Salukis was a little less interesting as they beat them 42-21 in Carbondale.
Although Indiana did only lose to Iowa 35-27, the Redbirds still have an edge given their ability to beat quality opponents.
Advantage: Illinois State
Iowa (12-2; 8-0)
See first game of the year.
Maryland (3-9; 1-7)
Don’t get me wrong, I believe Illinois State can hold their own with almost any team. Maryland had a down year after a 7-5 season that ended in a bowl loss.
One telling factor of how these teams compare is their one similar opponent: the Richmond Spiders. Maryland beat Richmond 50-21 in the opening week of the season and then went on to lose 9 out of their next 11.
Illinois State’s season ended at the hand of the Spiders 39-27 in the second round of the playoffs.
Unfortunately that’s the only discrepancy between the two teams and the only way to tell them apart.
Michigan (10-3; 6-2)
One of the first juggernauts we’ve come across.
Michigan had a great season under first year head coach Jim Harbaugh and senior quarterback Jake Rudock. The team ended up winning the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl against the Florida Gators.
I would love to think that the Redbirds could beat the Wolverines, but realistically it’s not really a possibility. In my opinion, the Redbirds could probably beat them five times out of 100. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of against such a good team.
Michigan State (12-2; 7-1)
The Big Ten champs aren’t just a blow over either. They did get crushed by Alabama in the Cotton Bowl but 12 wins is 12 wins.
This isn’t some fluff piece so I’ll tell it like it is: right now, I’d say there is no way that Redbirds could beat the Spartans right now. Maybe once in a blue moon if all they did was play each other, but it’d be very rare.
Advantage: Michigan State
Minnesota (6-7; 2-6)
While the Golden Gophers did win a bowl game, they only finished the regular season 5-7. Minnesota did not have a whole lot of things go right for it this year.
Their defense was their strongest point and it was only average. They got a lot of their wins from lower tiered Big Ten teams and out of conference opponents.
With only an average defense and a not so great offense, I’ll take the Redbirds most days.
Advantage: Illinois State
Nebraska (6-7; 3-5)
Nebraska and Minnesota had very similar seasons. The Cornhuskers also won their bowl game after finishing the season 5-7. Nebraska had one surprise when they beat Michigan State late in the season.
The passing game was one of their strengths on the year as well as an average defense. While this would be a competitive game, I believe the Redbirds would have met their match on both sides of the football. It would be close, but Nebraska has an edge.
Northwestern (10-3; 6-2)
This one would be interesting. Another in-state rivalry could be formed to go along with the Illinois one.
The Wildcats won all of their games thanks to defense and ended up with a record better than their skill. The Redbirds had a great defense to go along with their high-powered offense. There is no doubt in my mind that Illinois State had a better offense than Northwestern. The Wildcat defense though was one of the best in the country last year. If this game was played last year, it would’ve been very close.
We may not have to speculate about this one for much longer as these two will square off in the second week of next year.
Ohio State (12-1; 7-1)
The class of college football. Probably the best team in the Big Ten. They make every team they play look like high schoolers.
I love Illinois State, but pairing them up with the Buckeyes would be disastrous for every Redbird fan.
Advantage: Ohio State
Penn State (7-6; 4-4)
Don’t get the wrong idea about the Nittany Lions, this team is better than their record. Four of their losses came from ranked Big Ten teams, one came from a Temple team yet to be ranked, and the last was a one touchdown loss to Georgia in their bowl game.
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg unperformed all year, but boy is he still a great talent. Their defense was above average and only allowed 21.7 points per game.
In my opinion, this team is much better than ISU currently.
Advantage: Penn State
Purdue (2-10; 1-7)
Purdue’s two wins? Nebraska and Indiana State. Illinois State has already done one of those.
Purdue is ranked in the bottom half of the FBS in every stat except passing yards. As the worst team in the Big Ten, the Redbirds have their best chance to win against the Boilermakers.
Advantage: Illinois State
Rutgers (4-8; 1-7)
The best area of Rutgers team? The running backs racked up 169.9 rushing yards per game. That’s good enough for 66th best in the nation.
Another fun stat? Rutgers four wins came against teams with a combined record of 12-35. Clearly the Scarlet Knights’ second season in the Big Ten did not go as planned.
With the Redbirds great rush defense, the team should have no problem turning Rutgers’ only positive into a negative.
Advantage: Illinois State
Wisconsin (10-3; 6-2)
The Wisconsin Badgers have been at the top of the Big Ten for quite sometime. How good have they been? This year’s 10-3 season is actually worse than their 11-3 mark from last year. And all their three losses came against teams that finished in the top 13 in the final AP poll.
Tre Roberson and Marshaun Coprich are a good combo. But the Badger defense finished as the top defense in the FBS. We love our Roberson-Coprich combo in Normal, but if this defense can hold the National Champions to only 35 points than there isn’t a lot of hope for the Redbirds.
So according to this completely arbitrary writer, Illinois State would have gone 5-8-1 against the Big Ten this year. Not bad considering that the Redbirds are only at the FCS level. A lot of the games could have gone either way, but unfortunately most of those were the wins I gave to ISU.
The Redbirds have a lot of question marks going into the 2016 season as Roberson, Coprich, and numerous defensive starters are graduating in the spring. If we played this game a year from now would the results be different? Only time will tell.
If the Redbirds did join the Big Ten I believe that over the course of time, Illinois State could accumulate enough talent to contend with the big schools regularly. A lot of things need to fall in place before any of this can happen in real life, but it’s nice to dream of Illinois State one day being a Big Ten school.