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Is Lovie Smith done at Illinois? No, but 63-0 signals the end is inevitable

Is Illinois going to fire coach Love Smith?

That’s a question I got from several readers after the Illini’s appalling 63-0 loss Saturday to Iowa at home on senior day. Illinois is 4-7 and headed nowhere fast in Smith’s third season. The former Bears coach’s record at the school — 9-26 overall, 4-22 in the Big Ten — is almost as big a joke as the absurdly generous six-year, $21 million contract then-new athletic director Josh Whitman gave Smith in 2016.

Is Smith’s goose cooked in Champaign? No. At this point, it would cost too much to buy him out. At the least, it seems, he’ll get what should be a make-or-break fourth season, the terms of which ought to be: Join about two-thirds of FBS teams in making a bowl, any bowl, or take your buyout then — at the completion of the 2019 campaign, it would be about $8 million all told — and don’t say we never gave you anything.

Meanwhile, how disastrous is 63-0?

Lovie Smith — at Illinois for the long haul? | Stephen Haas/The News-Gazette via AP

How do you sell season tickets after 63-0?

How do you look a coveted recruit in the eye after 63-0?

Bad Mid-American Conference teams don’t lose to Big Ten powerhouses 63-0. Sun Belt also-rans don’t lose to Southeastern Conference titans 63-0. What does 63-0 say? It says, ‘‘We don’t care.’’ Worse than that, it says, ‘‘We don’t matter.’’

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

2. Illinois’ next coach? He’s out there. He’s going to want back in. He’s a former college coach with one smash success
on his résumé, one deflating dud and, lately, some dabbling at the NFL level. If I were Whitman, I’d have him on my radar right now. He might be the coach who eventually saves Whitman’s own job.

I’m referring to Bret Bielema. He went to three consecutive Rose Bowls at Wisconsin. He topped out at 8-5 in five mostly disappointing seasons at Arkansas. He’s a small-town Illinoisan who idolized Hayden Fry at Iowa and became Barry Alvarez’s protégé in Madison. If he has lost his way a bit as a coach, this might be his road back to a job he belongs in.

3. Other side of the coin: Northwestern won 24-14 at Minnesota to raise its record to 14-1 in its last 15 Big Ten games.

Analysis alert: That’s good.

RELATED
Iowa beats Illinois 63-0, tying worst margin of defeat in Illini history
• Northwestern beats Minnesota for program-record 8th road win in row

4. Piling on: Back at Big Ten media days, there was buzz about NU’s then-eight-game winning streak, its jaw-dropping football facilities, its NFL-bound quarterback and, as always, its impressive, relatable coach, Pat Fitzgerald.

Oh, and people really liked Lovie’s beard.

And I thought the gap between the Wildcats and their supposed rivals was larger than ever four months ago.

5. And one to go: By blowing out Syracuse 36-3 at Yankee Stadium, Notre Dame ended any and all arguments that remained about its worthiness of the No. 3 playoff ranking. All that’s left for coach Brian Kelly’s best team — and it most certainly is that — is to win at USC, and it’s onward to a likely College Football Playoff semifinal date against Clemson.

6. P.S.: Yes, the Irish will beat USC. Yes, the Irish can play with Clemson.

7. Ohio State 52, Maryland 51 (OT): If I’m the Buckeyes’ defense, I strongly consider taking a dive Saturday against Michigan to avoid any chance of getting into the playoff and facing Alabama’s offense.

Come on, I’m kidding. Ohio State isn’t beating the Wolverines no matter how hard it tries.

8. Enough already: UCF destroyed a ranked Cincinnati team by 25, and I’m wondering what the Knights have to do to make people forget about the silly claim to the 2017 national title and, instead, appreciate how incredible an accomplishment it is to win 23 games in a row. This team is the best argument for an expanded playoff.

9. Nebraska 9, Michigan State 6: You ready for this? Right here, right now, I’m picking the Huskers to win the Big Ten West next season. Coach Scott Frost — the architect of UCF’s success, by the way — finally has his alma mater cooking with grease. Three field goals never smelled so good.

10. Greatest quote ever: ‘‘They’re both in shape. It’s simple. At this age, if you’re in shape, you’ve got a chance.’’

That was Washington State’s Mike Leach, who actually answered a question about which Pac-12 coach would emerge victorious in an all-out cage match and boiled it down to Arizona State’s Herm Edwards and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham.

For the record: I’m taking Oregon’s Mario Cristobal, who was a standout offensive tackle for Jimmy Johnson at Miami. But let’s hope we never have to find out.