College Sports

Big 10: Illini with two wins, good chance for more; SEC shows it’s No. 1 league

Take a bow, Illinois. You’re 2-0. There were points in each of the first two games — first against Kent State, then against Western Illinois — when victory was seriously in doubt, but you’ve reached this expected record in the early season and, well, that’s more than a lot of teams around the country can say.

Now the question is: Are there any more ‘‘W’s’’ out there for the Illini?

With the Big Ten — both in the West and on the whole — appearing less than advertised thus far, the answer is there ought to be at least a few real opportunities for Lovie Smith’s third Illinois squad to bury its winless league record of 2017 in the past.

It’s not even all that far-fetched to think the Illini have a chance to sneak into the bowl picture before November comes to a close. But, as an old boss used to say, we’ll cross that bridge when it collapses.

Illinois' Michael Marchese runs with an interception in Week 2. (AP/Holly Hart)

Smith’s team already is fighting the injury bug on offense — especially at receiver, where Mikey Dudek is out for the season, Ricky Smalling was held out of the 34-14 victory against Western Illinois and freshman Edwin Carter was knocked out of the game after catching two touchdown passes. And quarterback AJ Bush is iffy for the Soldier Field matchup Saturday against South Florida.

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Look at it this way, though: Freshman quarterback M.J. Rivers was outstanding in relief of Bush, and Carter was a little-known name heading into Week 2. What does this mean?

Smith is building some real, live depth in the program.

Illinois started 2-0 last season, only to finish 2-10. There are no guarantees 2018 will be any different.

‘‘This is just a different team,’’ Smith said. ‘‘I just don’t think those kind of things carry over. What a great opportunity for us now. We have been favorites the past couple of weeks, and we have won the game. Now is when we really show who we are.’’

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

2. Be afraid: Speaking of USF, have you heard the name Terrence Horne yet? He had 98- and 97-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns and added a scoring catch in the fourth quarter in the Bulls’ stirring Week 2 defeat of Georgia Tech. So, yeah, good luck with that, Illini.

3. The truth hurts: Turns out I’m an idiot. Yes, again. It took only two weeks before it became clear that my outlook on the season was catastrophically inaccurate.

No, the Big Ten isn’t the best conference in the land. The Southeastern Conference is — by a large margin. It was apparent even before Michigan State lost its lead at Arizona State late Saturday, but the Spartans’ eventual loss just hammered it home.

Alabama is a rock-solid No. 1. Georgia’s blowout victory at South Carolina was the finest performance by any team this season. Mississippi State’s 21-point victory at Kansas State was no joke. New coach Jimbo Fisher clearly has made an impact already at Texas A&M, which came within a missed two-point conversion of going to overtime with Clemson.

And don’t forget Auburn beating Washington and LSU destroying Miami in Week 1. Every other league is fighting for second place.

4. That said, this week is one to watch for Ohio State, which plays dangerous TCU at Jerry World in Arlington, Texas. There are those already positing that the Buckeyes might be unbeatable in league play. A playoff rematch against the Crimson Tide, anyone?

5. Vanilla, please: Did you catch Wisconsin’s box score against New Mexico? Superstar Jonathan Taylor rushed for a career-high 253 yards, and A.J. Taylor had 134 of the Badgers’ 151 receiving yards. In other words, it was one Taylor or the other, with no in between, all game. I’d call it boring, but that would be an insult to boring.

6. Once wasn’t enough? A true football wonk might be better able to explain why it is that Northwestern has been utterly dominated by Duke two years in a row, but this much is obvious: Pat Fitzgerald and his staff were completely outcoached again.

7 . So long: Notre Dame gave up a 19-play, 90-yard drive to Ball State. Make that to five-touchdown-underdog Ball State.

Somehow — even though the drive ended with only a field goal — that seems worse than Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush being sacked four times and picked off three times in a sorry 24-16 non-loss.

8 . Faint praise: Congrats to Kentucky on snapping a 31-game losing streak to Florida, but the not-your-daddy’s Gators have met the Wildcats more than halfway.

9 . Up for grabs: USC, a 17-3 loser at Stanford, was nearly shut out for the first time in more than two decades. The Pac-12 South is the most wide-open division in college football.

10 . Hawaii Three-0: Props to the Rainbow Warriors, who’ve beaten Colorado State, Navy and Rice for a 3-0 start despite being ranked outside the top 100 by every outlet that did a preseason 1-130. That, folks, is why you play the games.