1999 surprises eye continuity in 2000 season

by David La

CHICAGO — At last week’s Big Ten Kickoff luncheon, Michigan was selected as the 2000 Big Ten preseason favorite by the attending media. Wisconsin and Purdue followed the Wolverines.
While these teams figure to again be in the hunt for a first-place finish, the same continuity will likely hold for Northwestern and Iowa at the other end of the conference standings.
Then there’s the pair of surprise teams from last season — Minnesota and Illinois. Publications around the country, while projecting the respective programs to finish anywhere between sixth and eighth this season, do so with a caveat. If these teams can maximize the talents of their personnel, a run at a top-three-or-better finish is viable.
Football is a game of the moment, and at this moment, the Gophers and the Illini have the attention of the Big Ten.
Minnesota and Illinois, the two teams responsible for disrupting the status quo of the conference last season, share a number of similarities.
Both programs finished 8-4, went undefeated in November, set school records for points in a season and are led by coaches going into their fourth season.
The Gophers Glen Mason upheld his reputation as a rejuvenator of stagnant programs by leading Minnesota to its first bowl appearance in 13 years.
Having worked such wonders during previous stints at Kent and Kansas but never sustaining a winning record for more than two straight seasons, Mason also knows the difference between a spurt and a flow.
“It’s one thing to go from a loser to a winner in a season,” Mason said. “It’s another thing to maintain that. We went from a loser to a winner, but the program is not turned around.”
Ron Turner of the Illini started his career in Champaign-Urbana with a 0-11 record. Last season ended with Illinois passing Virginia 63-21 in the Micronpc.com Bowl.
Turner, whose brother Norv coaches the NFL’s Washington Redskins, brought the Illini to its first bowl game in five years. The ensuing buzz created by fans is a welcome burden.
“If you’re going into the fourth year of your program and the expectation level is not any higher than what it was, that’s pressure,” Turner said.
For all their similarities, Minnesota and Illinois will play to different strengths during this season’s quest for legitimacy and continuity.
For the Gophers, defense is the story. All but three starters from the conference’s top-ranked passing defense return, making the unit the starting point for success.
“I’ve been a lot of places in my head coaching tenure associated with losing, and I did a study,” Mason said. “The one common denominator in losing programs is lousy defense.”
While Mason’s methodically built defense carried the program in 1999, Turner thrust a score of young players into battle for the Illini and seemingly crossed his fingers.
“Last year, we had a lot of question marks on the offensive line, our quarterback situation was unsettled, and our wide receivers were very inexperienced,” Turner said. “Fortunately, a lot of those questions were answered in a positive way.”
Illinois finished first in the Big Ten in turnover differential with a plus-13, and drew the third-fewest penalties in the league.
Still, as the clock ran out on Minnesota’s 37-7 win at Illinois last season, the two teams appeared headed in opposite directions.
Now at 5-1, a ranked Minnesota team needed only one more win to attain bowl-eligible status — a win which would be realized with an upset of Penn State at Happy Valley.
After suffering its third straight loss, the 3-3 Illini faced Michigan the following week.
“I made the statement last year that we needed to have a game, preferably on the road, against a heavily favored team…and beat that team to get us mentally over the hump,” Turner said.
The stop in Ann Arbor served as Turner’s turning point. Illinois beat the Wolverines and three out of its next four opponents — including another upset win at Ohio State — qualifying for a bowl berth of its own.
Year after year, as the Big Ten’s usual flagship programs steam toward a conference championship, they are all too often torpedoed by an underdog and left dead in the water.
Last year, it was Minnesota and Illinois combining to put gaping holes in the records of Penn State, Michigan and Ohio State.
With the 2000 season just five weeks away, both teams look to sustain and build on recent success.
The unspoken goal: to eventually be recognized for not making a bowl game, rather than the opposite.

David La Vaque welcomes comments at [email protected].