The non-conference games are over, and Illinois looks like an improved team at 3-1. But the practice is complete, and the games that matter are beginning.
The Illini have proven that they can make plays against pedestrian competition. Let's not forget that besides Cincinnati in Week 2 (without an injured Munchie Legaux), Illinois's last four wins have come against Miami University, Southern Illinois, Charleston Southern and Western Michigan. Not exactly a murderer's row of opponents.
Saturday's Big Ten opener in Lincoln offers the chance for the Illini to not only get a conference win for the first time in almost two calendar years. It also offers the prospect for Illinois to truly start the process of becoming a legitimate program again.
"There's a buzz now," Illini coach Tim Beckman said after Wednesday's practice. "We're playing better. We're not close to where we need to be, but we're playing better. We need to make strides to make the program better."
Against Nebraska, the Illini will have to decide what kind of team they want to be. Even if Husker quarterback Taylor Martinez (turf toe) doesn't play, no Illinois fan should expect their team to walk into Lincoln and win. Even if Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is on the hot seat and his defense is allowing more points per game (27) than Illinois (24.8), Illini fans need to keep it together. If this team wants to be taken seriously, however, it has to compete on both sides of the ball.
It's very rare that a program goes from doormat to contender overnight. Right now, the Illini need to at least be a tough out, like Vanderbilt in the SEC. Illinois has to make its opponents respect what it can do, and the only place respect is earned is on the field.
"We haven't won a Big Ten game in a while, and that's a streak we want to snap," safety Earnest Thomas III said. "We've been working since the last game of last season and the offseason to try to change a lot of things around here."
Luckily, a 3-1 start to this season after the disaster of 2012-13 puts Illinois on a good track. There was almost nowhere to go but up. The Illini are halfway to bowl eligibility, and a strong showing against Nebraska would put them another step closer to respectability.
The opportunity is there for the taking on Saturday. What Illinois does with it remains to be seen.