COMMENTARY - Biggest Game of the Year?

You won't hear others say it. You wouldn't think it based on the two teams' recent struggles. But Saturday's Indiana-Illinois game is arguably the biggest on the schedule for both programs. Why? Recruiting, that's why.

You won't hear others say it.

You wouldn't think it based on the two teams' recent struggles.

But Saturday's Indiana-Illinois game is arguably the biggest on the schedule for both programs.

Sure, Indiana is trying to avenge last year's 26-22 setback in Champaign and more importantly improve to 4-1, which would be a big step toward getting to the magical six wins that would make it bowl eligible. But it's not what happened on the field last year or even last week that makes this such a big game – it's what's going on off the field.

Recruiting.

Both IU's Terry Hoeppner and Illinois' Ron Zook are trying to sell a vision for the future of their respective programs to recruits from around the Midwest. These two programs' recruiting efforts, meanwhile, overlap in a slew of areas, including Chicago, Indianapolis, northwest Indiana and St. Louis, among others.

While Indiana tangles with Purdue on a regular basis in an effort to attract the top in-state players to Bloomington, its recruiting tussles with Illinois are equally important. With where both programs are right now, that's who Indiana is often competing with on the recruiting front.

Don't believe me? Take, for instance, St. Louis area cornerback Antonio Gully. A top-50 cornerback nationally, Gully was in Bloomington for an unofficial visit 2 ½ weeks ago and saw the Hoosiers knock off Kentucky, 38-14 to improve to 3-0. The following weekend, he traveled to Champaign for another unofficial. The results weren't as positive for the Illini, who were hammered by Michigan State, 61-14.

Don't think the IU coaches weren't aware of the impact of both results.

Gully's case, meanwhile, is far from the first recruiting battle these two have had this season. The Illini have already received a verbal commitment from Merrillville (Ind.) offensive lineman Brandon Jordan, they've offered Merrillville lineman Dexter Larimore, and they've been in pursuit of Indianapolis area players as well. With assistant coaches with strong Indiana ties such as Mike and Curt Mallory, it's a foregone conclusion Zook's staff will try to make sure the Illini roster has a Hoosier flavor.

Indiana, meanwhile, has commitments from Chicago area preps Matt Mayberry and Alex Perry along with Springfield's Jeff Sanders, and its efforts in Illinois are far from over. Assistant Head Coach Bill Lynch has a track record of recruiting success in the Chicago area, and he's not slowing down in his second stint with the IU coaching staff.

When a new coaching staff comes on board at any school, there's a window of opportunity in recruiting, a period where you can say, forget about the past and be a part of a promising future. Eventually, though, the novelty of a new staff wears off, and it's the results on the football field that matter most.

That's what makes Saturday's contest so important. Among those preps who are expected to be in attendance are St. Louis tailback Stephen Simmons (who could verbal to IU this weekend) and recent IU commit Matt Mayberry. Undoubtedly there will be a handful of other talented preps watching these two Big Ten programs battle at Memorial Stadium.

It's a good bet that as many of those high schoolers in attendance begin weighing their options in the coming weeks and months, they'll have Indiana as well as Illinois on their short lists.

After all, Illinois is who Indiana is competing with right now.

On the field and off.

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