CHAMPAIGN - You only get one chance to make a first impression.
And in the case of the 2010 University of Illinois football team, they'll only have one chance to make a final impression.
That makes the Texas Bowl matchup with Baylor on Dec. 29 important because it will greatly shape how people feel about Ron Zook's sixth Illini football team for a period of eight months.
The result of this game could impact recruiting, shape national perception and even influence ticket sales until next year's team can begin making new impressions once the 2011 season begins on Sept. 3 against Arkansas State.
It goes without saying the Texas Bowl is not an elite bowl game, although with 35 bowls on the schedule this year, I'm not sure how many really are. And at 6-6, Illinois is a marginal bowl team playing against a 7-5 Baylor squad that is only slightly less marginal.
None of that, however, completely diminishes the fact that there are measurable gains at stake for Illinois.
First of all, bowl or not, it's hard to get head-over-heels excited about a team that finishes with a losing record, and a loss to Baylor would bring Illinois to 6-7. That would include four losses in the final five games.
Not exactly a tidal wave of euphoria to ride through the winter, something to be avoided if at all possible.
A victory, on the other hand, would end the season on a positive note, would make an impression in the talent-rich state of Texas where Zook and his staff are hoping to make recruiting inroads and would give comfort and joy to a loyal and patient fan base who, frankly, deserve a football star on top of a holiday tree that has way too few ornaments.
A loss and the grumbling about Zook multiplies and any language about the program "turning a corner," or "bouncing back" resonates with a hollow thud.
A victory, on the other hand, would confirm that no matter how you might feel about Zook, he did a very good job responding to AD Ron Guenther's directive to find more capable offensive and defensive coordinators, and to let those coaches do their job while he supervises the staff and supplies energy and direction to the program.
A loss and we can debate just how effective the defense was in a late-season collapse and just how effective the offense was with a very limited passing game under first-year quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
A victory, on the other hand, and people could more clearly see the very fine job defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has done with limited resources. Koenning has used every trick in his bag to coax confidence, hard play and an improved attitude out of a group that had been beaten down and developed bad habits over the past two losing seasons.
A victory would also be a nice reward for the shrewd job done by offensive coordinator Paul Petrino as he willingly adapted his offense to better fit the run-pass skills of Scheelhaase.
Win this bowl game and the future will seem extremely bright with Scheelhaase growing as an improved sophomore passer. And either way the future at the quarterback position should seem exciting with the arrival next season of freshman Reilly O'Toole from Wheaton Warrenville South, the Chicago area Player of the Year who led his team to consecutive Class 7A state titles and this year threw 42 touchdown passes with only three interceptions.
Some high school coaches say he's the best quarterback prospect to come out of the Chicago area in 20 years.
A loss and concerns about possible early departures by running back Mikel Leshoure, linebacker Martez Wilson and defensive lineman Corey Liuget would fester like a bad blister. And that says nothing about what happens if a school offers the right head coaching opportunity to Petrino.
But a victory and the outlook is rosier, especially with next season's favorable schedule that includes eight home games, a schedule in which Illinois doesn't leave Memorial Stadium until an Oct. 8 trip to Indiana. With some solid play and a little luck, it's not unreasonable to believe Illinois could be 6-0 and nationally ranked when Ohio State comes to Champaign on Oct. 15.
That will be harder to comprehend while digesting a loss in Houston.
When the Texas Bowl matchup was first announced, I knew just enough about Baylor to think that Illinois was in trouble. A Big 12 Conference team with blinding speed, practically playing at home, just might carve up a 6-6 Illini group that has trouble throwing the ball and has been slip-sliding on defense for a month.
But the oddsmakers say Baylor is favored by just one point, maybe a point-and-a-half.
So to this Illinois football team, I say go win this game. It's not the Rose Bowl and it's light years from the national championship. But if you'd like eight months of greatly improved feelings, eight months of having the gripers back off a little, eight months of increased optimism heading into 2011, beating Baylor is a no-brainer.
It's all the incentive the 2010 team should need to make one final impression.