Welcome back to B1G 2019, Off Tackle Empire’s week-by-week preview of all fourteen Big Ten teams!
One feature we’re adding this summer is “Better Know a B1G Blog,” wherein we get a chance to hear from the various schools’ own bloggers about what makes their site, their school, and their fans unique in both the Big Ten and the college football landscape.
I’m grateful to Tristen Kissack, the new manager of the Illinois SBNation blog The Champaign Room, and a few of their writers—including one familiar rogue—for taking the time out to answer some questions for me without hesitation or making fun of my complete lack of internet interviewing abilities. (Maybe he did hesitate...the TCR guys handled my questions with aplomb anyways! Go follow Tristen and The Champaign Room on Twitter!)
Off Tackle Empire: Tell us about The Champaign Room: Your origin story, any particular in-jokes or memes we should be aware of, or any other Illinois-specific quirks we should know about when we pop over to read an article!
Tristen Kissack (Site Manager): Need I say more?
Stephen Cohn (Former Site Manager): Definitely always be ready for memes that are self-deprecating. It’s in our Twitter bio for godsake, “Come for talk, stay for disappointment.”
Michael Berns (Contributor): Former head football coach Tim Beckman is the ultimate buffoon, and even though he’s long gone — in TCR’s Slack Chat, type in “Beckman” or “not ideal” and see what SlackBot has to say about that. You might subliminally see some Beckmanisms scattered throughout our writing in our articles, too.
OTE: Give us an idea of what kind of #content you think exemplifies the qualities of TCR. What’s been your favorite writing assignment or experience for TCR? (Feel free to include links to articles!)
Stephen Cohn: I think over my two years as site manager, I tried to have the staff and I produce content that is journalistic with a twist. We want to take the view of the educated and informed fan, but still be the fan. While this story was straight journalism, it’s my favorite I have ever gotten to tell, getting to go to the peewee basketball game for Illini diehard Colton Rahn, who is also fighting cerebral palsy.
Thumpasaurus: The Longwood Longtable was among the best things TCR has produced recently.
One that I still laugh about was our slackroom trying to decipher the Instagram Story of Jeff Thomas—a star transfer WR from Miami who was having second thoughts about transferring to the Illini and was considering returning the Canes—to determine whether he was in Champaign or Miami at a particularly crucial point in his recruitment. Well, we decided to publish our investigative findings.
OTE: What’s one stereotype about the TCR commentariat and Illinois fanbase that Big Ten fans as a whole get wrong?
Stephen Cohn: I think the stereotype is that we’re either a bunch of idiots or we hate the Illini because we’re too “negative.” It’s truly difficult to produce a week of positive commentary after you lose 63-0 on Senior Day or guys continue transferring out of the program into May AFTER the spring game. We all love the Illini as much as our fans, and they don’t seem to always think that.
Austin Jabs: I would have to echo what Stephen has said here. We truly care a great deal about these teams. Nobody would stick around writing about a team that hasn’t been to a bowl game or NCAA Tournament since the early part of the decade if we just wanted to hate on the Illini. We are objective, fair, and honest and call out the truth when we see it, even if parts of the fanbase choose not to look at things honestly.
Also, we don’t all love Malort the same way that Thumpasaurus does. [ed. note: We won’t hold that against you—official OTE editorial policy is that Malort is God’s nectar.]
Michael Berns: We’re not all Cubs fans. We are part Cubs/Cardinals/Sox.
Also of the TCR staff, we’re a diverse group and aren’t a bunch of Chicago homers. We hail from Chicago (duh), central Illinois, Florida, California, St. Louis, Minneapolis, etc.
OTE: What are you most excited about for the Illinois 2019 season? For the uninitiated fan of another Big Ten school, what are the storylines surrounding your program? Where do you see Illinois in the pantheon of Big Ten football going into 2019?
Stephen Cohn: While I’m graduating and moving to Madison (go Badgers?) [BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO], I’m most excited to potentially see real results on the field, like a bowl game or NCAA Tournament. And, if there isn’t, we riot — or Josh Whitman does that for us.
Illinois in the pantheon of Big Ten football, however? Seventh in the Big Ten West.
Tristen Kissack: If you’re an Illini fan, there’s one thing you’re excited for: the new additions. Isaiah Williams, Marquez Beason, Shammond Cooper, take your pick. This is one of the best freshman classes Illinois has had in recent memory. I think we’re all giddy to see some of these freshman take the field.
A few of the biggest storylines surrounding the program right now are Luke Ford’s appeal of the NCAA ruling that stated he was not eligible to play immediately and Lovie Smith’s future with the team. He signed an extension recently, but his buy-out didn’t increase. If he has a rough start to the 2019 season, the Illini could be ending the year with a different guy calling the shots.
With the competitiveness of the Big Ten, however, I don’t see Illinois finishing in the top half of the Big Ten West.
Michael Berns: It’s all about the quarterback position. In my four years as a student at U of Illinois, I was blessed with very good Illini quarterback play: Three years of Juice Williams and one year of the very capable Nate Scheelhaase.
In 2019 we welcome a true freshman quarterback in Isaiah Williams who could set the world on fire and single-handedly bring our beloved Illini out of the rut. Expected? No. Possible? Yes. Scheelhaase was a big-time recruit with high expectations. Incoming frosh Isaiah Williams is even more hyped and needed now more than ever.
Raul Rodriguez: Can the Illini move out of the Big Ten West cellar and creep toward the middle? Lovie seems to have things trending up with the the hire of Offensive Coordinator Rod Smith in 2018 and the improved recruiting stemming from the hire of Corey Patterson, but the on-the-field improvement going forward has to be significant and rapid.
The anticipated ascension of Nebraska and the steadiness of Iowa and Wisconsin make it hard for the Illini to be competitive with those three teams. When you couple that with how things clicked for Fleck and the Gophers at the end of 2018, how lethal Purdue’s passing game is expected to be going forward, and the beginning of the Hunter Johnson-era at NW, it’s hard to see the Illini not finishing near the bottom of the Big Ten West again. The Big Ten West is becoming a cruel Bell Curve. The reality is that the Illini have improved but the rest of the Big Ten West has improved much more rapidly than the Illini.
OTE: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us! Anything else—tailgating advice, Champaign bars to visit, local cuisine, etc.--we should know about Illinois and The Champaign Room?
Stephen Cohn: Maybe this is just me, but if you’re in Champaign on a Monday night, go to Murphy’s Pub on Green Street for some bingo. I’m a big bingo guy. Plus, continue reading TCR! Even as I take off into a different role in the coming weeks, Tristen Kissack, who has been on the site for two years and covered EVERYTHING is going to do an awesome job running the blog!
Michael Berns: Legends is the best on-campus bar. It’s the ultimate sports bar.
Murphy’s Pub as Stephen mentioned is great, too. A bit off the beaten track of Green Street are some really good Downtown Champaign bars such as Blind Pig Company, Barrelhouse 34, Jupiters, Esquire and Cowboy Monkey (Live music!). Those tend to have an older crowd and all of them have great selections of craft beers, particularly in the fall.
I would also mention a great thing to do is, if you’re a coffee nut like me: Grab a cup of Espresso Royale and sit at the tables outside in front of the Illini Union on the quad. It’s one of the best spots in the entire state to just sit and relax.
Tristen Kissack: If you’re like me, then you like to eat. Should you ever find yourself in Champaign on a road trip, Black Dog is a must-have. Brisket, pulled pork, chicken, whatever it is you choose, it’s sure to be some of the best barbecue you’ve had. Seven Saints is another really great choice for grub!
For great Illinois perspective, fantastic writing, and self-deprecating humor, check out Tristen and the rest of the gang over at The Champaign Room. And if you’re a Illinois fan who’s new here, welcome! We hope you stick around. Thanks for taking the time to read us at Off Tackle Empire, and thanks again to Tristen and TCR.