CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — For a while, it wasn't certain we'd see the Big 10 play any football games at all in 2020. But after months of speculation and preparation, the conference is ready to join the SEC, ACC and others on the football field during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Illinois and (14) Wisconsin get the honor of kicking off the Big 10 slate, as they get their seasons underway on Friday in Madison.
The Fighting Illini and head coach Lovie Smith had one of college football's biggest upsets against the Badgers last season, on their way to a 6-6 regular season record and bowl bid for the first time in six years.
Now, they're looking to build on that momentum, in an 8-game all-Big 10 schedule. And Smith is rearing to get going.
"When you start the football season off and you're three touchdown underdogs, it kind of gets you going a little bit too. So we'll be ready to go," Smith said in his pre-Wisconsin Zoom media session.
This is Smith's fifth year at the helm in Champaign, with his team taking its most significant step forward in under his watch last season. The Fighting Illini finished fourth in the Big 10 West, but had impressive wins over Wisconsin and Michigan State, showing they were ready to compete.
But 2020 is a new year, with a new set of challenges and a clean slate.
"You can do an awful lot of talking about what you are, who you can be and all those things. But it has to be confirmed. The only way it can be confirmed is if you get a win against good people," Smith said. "And we were able to get some big wins last year, so yes, winning definitely gives you confidence that it works if you do it the right way. If you work hard, buy into it, have each others backs, play hard and continue to do all the things that we preach. So yes, last year we took a step, but they don't take that record over. We start again."
As for the quality of play to expect from the Illini and the rest of the conference as their COVID-19 hiatus ends? Smith isn't worried.
"I do not expect to see a bad brand of football. I think we're going to see exciting, good football from the start. It will get better each week as it always does. But we expect to play good football right away, and I know the rest of the Big 10 teams are," Smith said. "Just can't wait to get back into the mix of college football. What we've had to go through is withdrawals a little bit of not being able to be involved in this special thing we get to do of playing college football. So we can't wait to go, but also being the first Big 10 team to play, can't wait to go."