CAMPUS CHECK-IN: A new season dawns

EVANSTON, IL- OCTOBER 13: Head coach Pat Fitzgerald of the Northwestern Wildcats reacts as his team intercepts a pass against the Nebraska Cornhuskers during the second half on October 13, 2018 at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois. Northwestern won 34-31 in overtime. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

EVANSTON – For the first time since the early 2000s, a team from the school will be the reigning champion of at least part of the conference title.

No, it wasn’t the entire thing, as it was when Northwestern won a share of the Big Ten title in 2000 when it was still one group competing for the crown. In 2019, the Wildcats will be going after a second-straight West Division championship, which they captured for the first time last fall.

So what kind of carry-over can Northwestern expect in 2019 from a title campaign the year before as they prepare for their season opener at Stanford Saturday?

Pat Fitzgerald has just one thing in mind.

“The way you prepare,” said Fitzgerald of what he took from the 2018 season into this fall. “You look back at the first month or so, five weeks or so of last year’s team, I thought we really prepared well. I thought it really showed in the opener against Purdue, and then we took a little bit of a step sideways for a couple of weeks in our preparation.

“We didn’t quite get to the point we were capable of and I think the team finally woke up going into the Michigan week. I think it showed. I know we didn’t win, but I thought we played much cleaner and better than we did the previous couple weeks.”

They’ll have to be prepared this year as they will have a difficult schedule in their first six games of the season. Starting with the Cardinal, Northwestern will play five ranked teams in their first six games, including Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Ohio State.

ILLINOIS: Can their improvement in play match the facility?

CHAMPAIGN – It’s a big week around Memorial Stadium, not only because the home opener against Akron is approaching.

Before their home opener, Illinois players got the chance to see the new $80 million Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Performance Center. Nearly everything got a massive upgrade from the existing facility, giving the athletes along with the program a much-needed boost.

While that’s all and good, Lovie Smith needs a major boost on the field in a critical 2019 season. After three difficult building years, the coach faces a crossroads in this campaign with the hopes that the Illini can be more competitive and end a five-year streak of missing out on a bowl game.

Much of the attention in training camp was focused on the quarterback competition, with transfer Brandon Peters winning the job. While the unit saw some improvement under new coordinator Rod Smith in 2018, the defense had their hands full, giving up 39.4 points a game, good for 124th out of 130 FBS teams.

Coming to Champaign with a defensive reputation, it’s something that must change.

“I made the statement, the defense has had to own what has happened around here the last few years.” said Smith. “We’re better, can’t wait to show it this coming Saturday at 11 o’clock right at Memorial Stadium.”

NOTRE DAME: They’ll have to wait a bit

SOUTH BEND – Being on the big stage is nothing new for Brian Kelly, but playing on a Monday to open the season is a bit unusual.

But that’s what his 2019 Notre Dame team will do on Labor Day as they face Louisville on the road, a first in the proud program’s history. It will come as the Irish try to return to the College Football Playoff for a second-straight season, but that goal’s a bit away at the moment.

The Irish have to replace some critical pieces to that squad, including six players taken in the NFL draft, before they can look to make it to the playoff again. That will be a season-long process, but at the moment, Kelly must navigate a weird Monday night schedule for his team.

So what will they do on Saturday, when they almost always play their games?

“We’ll practice a little bit on Saturday. It’s a normal Thursday for us, so we’ll have our Thursday practice, again, using the days of the week for us. That’s an important practice day,” said Kelly. “We’ll have our normal practice day, then we’ll release the guys. It’s 48 hours out. We’ll get them off their feet.

“They’ll sign up for their tickets, just like they would. Probably go back and watch some Thursday night games, they’ll go back and watch some Saturday games.”

NORTHERN ILLINOIS: A New Era Begins

DEKALB – He once took the field at Huskie Stadium with the helmet and shoulder pads. Now, he’ll do so with khakis and dress pants.

Thomas Hammock, a former running back for Northern Illinois, will lead his alma mater onto the field for the first time as their head coach on Saturday as they host Illinois State at 6 PM in DeKalb.

He takes over for Rod Carey, who coached the Huskies for six seasons and led them to a pair of Mid-American Conference championships along with five bowl games. Hammock spent the last five seasons as the running backs coach for the Baltimore Ravens.

The coach won’t get a break to start off his career in DeKalb, as he hits the road for the next three games against major conference opponents. A trip to No. 14 Utah is next, then followed by a game at No. 24 Nebraska and Vanderbilt.

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