Illini Belong In The Rose: Deal With It

Funny, isn't it, how the court of public opinion awards rights and privileges. And, somehow, that fickle and cynical court has decided the overachieving Illinois football team -- the feel good story of the 2007 season -- suddenly doesn't belong in this game on the first day of 2008. Too many losses. Not a good enough team. No stars. Well, you know what I say: To hell with that. Why? Read on.

It is beyond me how folks that follow college football can determine that Illinois "doesn't belong" in the Rose Bowl. Doesn't belong? Are you kidding me? Are you freaking kidding?

Everybody wanted Georgia there instead. Really? Last I checked, Georgia was 10-2, one whopping game better than Illinois. And the Illini have a win over then top-ranked Ohio State, one of the two teams playing in the national championship game. That was after beating then No. 5 Wisconsin as well.

Georgia? Will somebody please tell me who Georgia beat? Three-loss Florida on a day when Tim Tebow's right shoulder was hurt so badly he could barely sleep the night before. When a cortisone shot he had moments before the game didn't help at all. Trust me, it's all true.

Other than that, who? Can't think of anyone? Didn't think so.

Georgia? The team that lost to 6-6 South Carolina. In Athens? The team that needed a last second field goal to beat Vanderbilt. The team that needed overtime to beat 6-6 Alabama. The team that lost 35-14 to Tennessee. I called that game, by the way, and it wasn't that close.

Look, this isn't an attempt to knock Georgia. I like Mark Richt very much, like their program, and think they have a good team. And they weren't the ones popping off. But all this talk that Georgia clearly should have been the pick for the Rose Bowl -- a bowl that has had unparalleled success pairing the Pac 10 vs. the Big 10 -- is complete hogwash. Utter and complete hogwash.

Illinois doesn't belong? Are you telling me that these Illini players -- who have never been to a bowl game of any kind, yet put in ridiculous hours in the off-season to build their bodies, bought into Ron Zook's plan and made themselves believe when evidence suggested they never would succeed don't belong. These fabulous kids, who are so proud to be Illini even though they have never won; who have had sand kicked in their faces since the day they got on campus, they don't belong?

All pre-season, like every pre-season, pundits thought Illinois would fail again. The players would again be losers. Even the most staunch Illini supporters had their doubts. You know what I predicted? 5-7 and no bowl.

But these guys wouldn't buy it. They worked too damn hard. They fought. They believed. They willed themselves to a season that became the story of the year in college football. What a story it was -- a coach run out of town by one of the power brokers in the sport finds a down-on-their-luck group in the Midwest who had long been forgotten by the Fowlers, Corsos and Herbstreits of the world; and together they find a way to explode back into the college football landscape.

And they don't belong? Somebody tell J. Leman he doesn't belong, when all year long he outplayed more heralded guys named Connor and Laurinitis. Or Kevin Mitchell, who blew up receivers and knocked balls loose at an alarming rate. Or first team All-American guard Martin O'Donnell, who worked harder than he ever has worked in his life.

Or dead on placekicker Jason Reda, who missed once all year by an eyelash. Or Chris Norwell, who would have a far better chance making it in the NFL as an offensive tackle, but played defense his entire career for the good of the team. Or Dajuan Warren, who lost his place in the receiver rotation to younger, faster players, but never complained one time. Not one time.

Or a host of other seniors. Or, for that matter, underclassmen. They don't belong? Give me a break.

You know what? I'm annoyed I've even had to write this column. But I've heard it enough.

You know the good part? Illinois players are more tired of hearing it than I am. Yeah, they are having a terrific time in Los Angeles. And they should, they've earned that. But don't think for a minute -- for a minute -- that this ridiculous talk about how they don't belong isn't boiling within. And that kind of stuff does make a difference.

I don't know if Illinois can beat Southern Cal. I've said it often -- if there was an end of the season tournament in college football, like there should be -- I'd pick USC to win it. So I don't know if the Illini can win or not.

But I know this -- they've earned the right to try. Whether the public thinks so or not.

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