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Bowl-bound Illini look to move out of the Quick Lane and into something more prestigious

Brandon Peters to Daniel Barker wasn’t quite Joe Montana to Dwight Clark, but try telling that to giddy Illini fans. Who comes after LSU, Ohio State and Clemson in the next playoff rankings? And how ’bout those Gophers? It’s the Big 10 (where 10 actually means 10).

Illinois v Michigan State
Think the Illini are having just a bit of fun these days?
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Unbeaten LSU toppled unbeaten Alabama 46-41 in the game of the year Saturday in college football. Unbeaten Minnesota outfought unbeaten Penn State 31-26 in a Big Ten instant classic that elevated the Golden Gophers to true national prominence. Baylor stayed perfect, too, in a captivating 29-23, three-overtime drama at TCU.

Those are the marquee storylines spinning out of Week 11, but guess what we’ve got? We’ve got four-loss Illinois.

A much better way to put it: We’ve got the bowl-bound Illini, who won their fourth consecutive game, a 37-34 mind-blower at Michigan State in which they outscored the Spartans 27-3 in the fourth quarter and converted a pass for a touchdown with five seconds left.

Brandon Peters to Daniel Barker wasn’t quite Joe Montana to Dwight Clark, but try telling that to giddy Illinois fans.

Next up: at Iowa a week from Saturday, followed by the regular-season finale at home against Northwestern. One more victory, and the Illini likely will move out of the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit and into something slightly more prestigious. Two more, and who knows? Maybe they’ll bust into the back end of the 25-deep College Football Playoff rankings.

Wouldn’t that be something?

On to the rest of the ‘‘Big 10’’ (where 10 actually means 10):

2. The 4 question: LSU will be first in the second playoff rankings Tuesday. Ohio State will be second and Clemson third. But No. 4?

It’ll be Georgia or, yeah, Alabama. The Crimson Tide, who really don’t have much of a résumé this season, are the same-old, same-old team so many folks won’t want to see.

But we all know that if the Tide were scheduled to play Georgia next on a neutral field, they’d be a solid favorite. If they were scheduled to play Oregon, Utah or Oklahoma, they’d be a heavy favorite. And if they were scheduled to play Baylor or Minnesota, they’d be favored by a few touchdowns or more.

So what do we do with that?

3. Reality bites: Look, it’s just plain true that Alabama — its talent, its pedigree, the eye test, all that stuff — is one of the best four teams in the country.

But phooey on that.

It’s a perfect example of why the crux of the playoff mission — seeking to identify the best four teams, not necessarily the most deserving four — is misguided. ‘‘Best’’ over ‘‘most deserving’’ is antithetical to everything that’s great about sports competitions.

Conference champions (or independents) only, please.

4. Goph fun me: Minnesota hadn’t been in the top 10 since 1962. That ended Sunday. What a wild, wonderful development.

5. The Heisman: It’s all but over. LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, who completed 31 of 39 passes for 393 yards and three touchdowns against the Tide, is in runaway position.

6. Josh Imatorbhebhe, your table is ready: The USC transfer turned four receptions into 178-yard, two-touchdown magic for Illinois. His go-up-and-get-it snare of a fourth-and-17 pass from Peters on the final drive of the game was a thing of beauty. This guy is as real-deal as it gets.

7. Notre Dame 38, Duke 7: It happened. Some people probably even watched. It’s uncanny, though, how the Irish fall off the national radar when they’re neither in contention for a championship nor in danger of getting a coach fired.

8. Purdue 24, Northwestern 22: A 16-7 halftime lead for the Wildcats evaporated against one of the worst teams in the conference. An 0-9 Big Ten finish seems likely. But at least the basketball team lost its opener to (who?) Merrimack.

9. That’s what he said: ‘‘Let’s go! Right here in the middle of this field! Let’s break it down: Tigers on three, baby! ’Cause this is our house from now on!’’

That was LSU coach Ed Orgeron after the game with his players at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Nick Saban plus that kind of bulletin-board material equals extreme danger when the Tigers next visit in 2021.

10. And another thing: And the national coach of the year is . . . one of three prime contenders. Will it be LSU’s Orgeron? Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck? Baylor’s Matt Rhule?

Sorry, Illini fans, but Smith simply isn’t in the running. Unlike those other guys, though, he still can call up Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and talk NFL Coach of the Year awards.