The Illinois Fighting Illini made a big statement in their Saturday win over Minnesota in Champaign, and Associated Press voters awarded them their highest ranking in more than a decade.
The Illini, clinched by virtue of a 26-14 victory over the Golden Gophers on Saturday, are now No. 18 in the AP rankings, which were released Sunday morning.
The ranking is the school’s highest since Week 7 of the 2011 season, when Illinois was ranked No. 16 after a 6-0 start to the regular season.
The Illini lost their next game after climbing that ladder, and actually lost their final six games of the regular season to finish 6-6. They would later beat UCLA in the Fight Hunger Bowl.
Illinois still has a long way to go if they hope to crack the top 10 in the rankings, which they haven’t done since 2001 when they fell to No. 7 after the final week of the season. They would lose the Sugar Bowl to LSU for just their second loss of the season.
The school’s highest ever ranking in the AP poll was No. 2, which they last achieved in 1964.
Illinois’ rise in the rankings has not only been fueled by Chase Brown, the nation’s leading rusher with 1,059 yards through seven games, but also by their defense. The Illini are allowing just 8.9 points and 221 yards per game, both tops in the nation.
Minnesota entered Saturday’s game averaging nearly 500 yards of offense per contest, but Illinois held them to just 180 yards, including 38 through the air.
In fact, Illinois hadn’t allowed a touchdown at home all season before Minnesota got on the board twice Saturday.
The Illini, who control their destiny in the Big Ten West, will have a week off before traveling to Lincoln to face Nebraska on Oct. 29. Home games against Michigan State and Purdue will follow before what looks to be a huge showdown against undefeated Michigan in Ann Arbor on Nov. 19.
Michigan, after losing to Penn State on Saturday, is now No. 4 in the AP rankings. Georgia remains at No. 1 after beating Vanderbilt on Saturday, and Ohio State remains at No. 2. Tennessee, which beat Alabama for the first time in 16 years on Saturday in Knoxville, is now No. 3 and Clemson rounds out the top five at No. 5.
Penn State dropped to No. 16 and is the only other Big Ten school still ranked.