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Wisch: Warm Illini Football Thoughts In February

By Dave Wischnowsky –

(CBS) It's Valentine's Day, and I'm feeling the love.

Yes, for my wife, of course. But also for the University of Illinois' football scheduling, which I think is pretty sweet.

And while Illini athletic director Mike Thomas hasn't yet earned his recent raise and contract extension based on the overall production of his hand-picked football and basketball coaches, he does deserve a pat on the pack for what he's done with future scheduling for the pigskin program.

On Tuesday, Illinois announced that it has agreed to a home-and-home series with Connecticut in 2019 and 2020. This comes on the heels of announcements last year that the Illini will face North Carolina in 2015-16, South Florida in 2017-18, Virginia in 2021-22 and Kansas in 2023-24.

Last fall, before Thomas had even finalized the UConn and Kansas contracts, I wrote that if someday the Illini football program – arguably the most underachieving in the nation – ever does enjoy achievement on a consistent basis, we very well might look back on this time as when the groundwork for that was laid.

All of the nonconference matchups scheduled by Thomas are against opponents from major conferences that theoretically should be beatable. For a struggling program like Illinois, that's vital.

In college football, the key to building a healthy program is to schedule at least two sure wins and one interesting game against a nonconference opponent. Then, with at least two nonconference victories under your belt, if your team can win just four league games, you're headed to a bowl game.

Those numbers won't win any championships, but by stringing together bowl games, you can build a foundation for greater success. And if ever a program needed a solid foundation, it's Illinois.

Hopefully, smart scheduling can help finally provide it. If not immediately, then someday down the line.

Go Wes, Young Man

This week, Champaign News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate wrote that, "For all the talk about Illini competition at quarterback, UI coaches who watched Wes Lunt's accurate throws on the scout team last fall will be surprised if Lunt isn't the winner."

In recent weeks, I've read speculation online that some fans instead believe that the Illinois quarterback job is actually rising sophomore Aaron Bailey's job to lose. But I don't agree with that. In fact, I don't think it's anyone's job to "lose" – Lunt included – but rather is someone's job to win.

Between the two, Bailey is obviously the only one to have played yet in an Illinois uniform, but he only completed two of five passes for four yards and one touchdown as a freshman. That hardly screams that he's earned first dibs on the position, even if Bailey may indeed be a special athletic talent and have a strong arm.

Besides, both he and Lunt, who sat out this past season as a transfer, have been in the Illini program for the same length of time. And during his own freshman year at Oklahoma State, Lunt completed 81 of 131 passes for 1,108 yards, six touchdowns and seven interceptions as a part-time starter.

Now, that doesn't mean that the Illini quarterback job is Lunt's to lose, either, though. I think the job should be viewed as open for someone to win. My guess is that someone will eventually be Lunt, who seems to be an ideal fit for offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's system, but we'll have to wait and see.

What we do know is that the competition for the position will be the most compelling part of spring football practices in Champaign this April.

Follow Dave on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his columns here.

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