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Ranking The Big Ten Football Programs All Time: The Illinois Fighting Illini

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Doing less with more better than anyone in the conference

House Holds Hearing On Human Growth Hormone Testing In NFL Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

In my younger days, Illinois was a name to be feared. In the late 80s and early 90s, the darkest days of the OSU football program, the Fighting Illini knocked off the Buckeyes 4 consecutive times in the Horseshoe. Dick Butkus was menacing people on the big and small screen, and the name Red Grange was synonymous with the birth of the NFL.

My perception wasn’t reality.

Since then, Illinois has been mostly down, with a few flashes of competence. That’s pretty much their entire history. They have made the final AP poll 13 times in the 80 or so years since they started doing a poll every season.

9 win seasons will get you fired at a place like Nebraska, but it’s only happened in Champaign seven times.

It’s not impossible to get talent in the Orange and Blue. Those menacing teams of the 90s seemed loaded, with guys like Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy on defense, and Jeff George and Jason Verduzco under center. In their most recent 9 win season, the team had Rashard Mendenhall, Juice Williams, and Arrelious Benn on offense. Those three were all highly recruited out of high school, but eventually what little momentum that was gained from that Rose Bowl appearance was lost, and Illinois has been dreadful.

It’s a pattern that has repeated itself many times. Tease the fans with what could be, and then go back to what it is. And what it is is the 10th best program in the Big Ten, edging out Purdue.

Going back 10, then 20, then 40 and finally 80 years, the Illini’s highest ranking in winning percentage was 87 at the 40 year mark. They are 8-10 in bowl games, with 3 major bowl wins, and have had 244 NFL players drafted, 4 earning Pro Football Hall of Fame honors.


So here is the list after 4 weeks of B1G 2017.

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  9. Maryland Terrapins
  10. Illinois Fighting Illini
  11. Purdue Boilermakers
  12. ?
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  14. Rutgers Scarlet Knights