Illinois, a school that's risen from the football ashes in recent years, has moved into the high-rank district this season and expects its team to be checking into Pasadena, Calif. before much longer.
The Fighting Illini took a major step toward their first Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl berth in 20 years when they beat Michigan 16-6 on the Champaign campus last Saturday. The victory, chalked up before a stadium record 76,127 spectators, gave Illinois a 6-0 conference mark and sole possession of the Big Ten lead. The only flaw in the team's 7-1 overall record was administered by Missouri in the season opener. Since then, sixth-ranked Illinois has gathered momentum, defeating league contenders Ohio State, Iowa, and Michigan at home. All that's left now are dates against three of the Big Ten's weakest teams - Minnesota, Indiana, and Northwestern.
In case of a conference tie with Michigan, Illinois would still go to the Rose Bowl, based on the school's first victory over the Wolverines in 16 years.
The reemergence of Illinois as a football power has been a long, arduous process, one littered with ousted coaches and controversy. And even now, in the sunshine of long-awaited triumph, a cloud has slipped onto the horizon.
Investigators from the National Collegiate Athletic Association have reportedly been looking into the school's football recruiting practices. The inquiry won't be completed until next year, but that's hardly a great comfort to those who remember the debilitating impact of a two-year NCAA probation during the 1960s.
The man credited with lifting Illinois out of doldrums is Coach Mike White, who helped popularize the forward pass in the once-stodgy Big Ten. Before arriving at Illinois in 1980, White built a reputation for developing outstanding quarterbacks.
Among his pupils at California, one of several coaching stops, were Steve Bartkowski, Vince Ferragamo, and Craig Morton. White also worked with Jim Plunkett as Stanford's offensive coordinator during the early 1970s, when the team won back-to-back Rose Bowls.
At Illinois, the success pattern has continued, with David Wilson and Tony Eason filling the air with spirals before Jack Trudeau, yet another California product, was handed the reins of this year's more balanced attack.
To win a Big Ten title, White realized his team would eventually have to excel in the staples of every conference champion - defensive and running. By going airborne, however, he was able to buy time to complete the rebuilding process and inject some excitement into Illini football. ''It got the fans interested,'' he explained. ''It got them coming back to the stadium and gave our defense a chance to grow.''
And indeed the defense has matured. The clearest case in point involves Michigan, which scored 70 points against Illinois two years ago, but was held to its lowest total of the season Saturday.
The sign of things to come was actually evident last year, when the Illini tightened up defensively as the season progressed. The improvement led to a 7-4 regular-season mark and a Liberty Bowl engagement, which Alabama won 21-15 in Bear Bryant's final coaching appearance. The trip to Memphis capped a campaign that saw Illinois lose to its chief rivals (Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa), but only by a total of 12 points. The handwriting was on the wall; Illinois was back.
Some observers, however, have looked disapprovingly on White's fondness for California players, especially for those groomed in that state's junior college system. Both Wilson and Eason were ''juco'' transfers, and this year's squad is dotted with 18 Californians, including 11 junior college products.
White has defended his recruiting strategy, saying he's tried to build an attractive program that would in turn lure top four-year players from Illinois and surrounding states. Too many backyard talents, he felt, were escaping to Notre Dame and other Big Ten schools. One that didn't get away, however, is Mark Butkus, a defensive tackle who is the nephew of Dick Butkus, a star, fittingly it seems, of the 1963 Rose Bowl team.