If there’s one thing I know in life, it’s that Illinois college football never ever conforms to your expectations. No one saw their two BcS appearances coming (2001, 2007); and since they followed both seasons up with sub .500 choking, both these bowl appearances are now looked upon as fluky. Whenever Illinois has been predicted to do well (2000, 2002, 2008, 2009) they fell flat on their faces. And their bowl wins (last year, 1999) come in seasons when everyone predicts them to finish near the Big Ten basement.
And I know a lot about this stuff.
My first ever sports memory was their destruction at the hands of UCLA in the 1984 Rose Bowl. I attended my first Illini game in 1991. In addition to covering the team for the school paper when I was in school there, two of my older siblings went to UI. In other words, it’s “my team,” and one of the three teams I cover regularly. So I know this stuff! And I’m excited to finally reach my team in the 77 in 77 (after all, Illini legend Red Grange, the greatest player the game has ever known) partially inspired this segment.
So where will the Illinois Fighting Illini finish this season?
2010 was: Overall 7-6 and a very pleasant surprise! A year ago, Ron Zook would have been fired if there was any justice in the world. However Athletic Director Ron Guenther was extremely foolish in giving the Zooker a long, expensive extension, and the state of Illinois is/was too broke to buy him out.
So they fixed the problem by bringing in two expensive and stellar coordinators (Paul Petrino on offense, Vic Koenning on defense) to do more of the work, and make sure Zook doesn’t burn the house down. The more empowered coordinators set-up took a little while to get going, but once it did it was successful.
They got a bowl win for the first time since 1999, a 38-14 drubbing of Baylor in Houston that kind of resembled their last bowl win, a 63-21 destruction of Virginia. The defense was pretty solid for the first half of the season, and the offense got very hot down the stretch, setting new records for points scored and total points. However, Illinois lost 3 stud underclassmen to the NFL draft who were key to the resurgence last season.
BMOCs: QB Nathan Scheelhaase is up for the Maxwell Award, and the dual threat quarterback made huge strides towards the end of last year. He completed his first 12 passes (including all in the first half) of the Texas Bowl, and tossed just 1 interception in his final 7 games. He set a school record for rushing yards by a QB (858) and had a very solid 17-8 TD-INT ratio. WR A.J. Jenkins (but he’ll need help from Darius Millines and Ryan Lankford, go here for more on that) RB Jason Ford attempts to become the next Mikel Lehoure/Rashard Mendenhall (go here for more on that). Hugh Thornton and Jeff Allen are the most talented in a good OL group.
On defense, keep an eye on Akeem Spence. Zook on Spence: “he’s quicker, and he’s got his weight down at that three technique.” Also Tavon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne in the secondary. The unit was weak last year, but will be a strength this year.
(this 77 in 77 is going to run much longer than the usual entry- deal with it!) PK Derek Dimke is one of the league’s best, and he’s rumored to have a really hot girlfriend. So it’s good for the kicker on a football team to finally get some. That doesn’t happen very often.
2011 will be fruitful if: Ford, or whichever tailback takes hold of the position and dominates. Scheelhaase needs to continue to make strides as a passer. “If you know Nathan, he’s the kind of guy that only knows one speed. All he cares about is winning, the last fourth of the season his passing game improved,” Zook said of Scheelhaase.
“Nathan probably threw more balls last year, in a year’s time, than he probably threw in his whole life combined up to that point.”
Well that’s encouraging, on the either side of the ball, new starters will be broken in all over the front seven. If they can find another Mike Linebacker to play to their system and be a tackles machine, and get another Corey Liuget type disruptor, things will be fine.
2011 will be awful if: they continue the SOUL-CRUSHING tradition of failing to produce back-to-back bowl/winning seasons. George H.W. Bush, or Bush 41 if you will, was president the last time they accomplished this. It all depends on how well they replace the trio (Leshoure, Liuget, and Martez Wilson) of early entries who were picked in the first couple days of the NFL Draft. Then again, all three were essentially one-year wonders, so who will be the next obscure-to-NFL player to come from Champaign? Did anyone expect to see Nate Bussey getting drafted?
Bottom Line: As you can see from the rankings below, expectations for the Illini are literally all over the place. So what does that mean? Steele has them a legitimate shot to go 9-3. Whoah! I still think they’re anywhere from the 7th-9th best team in the Big Ten. I will say this though, it will take a ton of injuries and incompetence for them to finish worse than 7-5. With 8 home games (including 5 to start the season) for the first time in school history, the schedule is as easy as it’s been in decades. And they don’t have that de facto automatic loss to the Missouri Tigers to start the season. That will end up being much bigger than you think.
The Big Ten looks like this in 2011, the cream is Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan State and the crumbs are Minnesota, Indiana and Purdue. What happens with all those teams in the middle is totally up for grabs.
ILLINI Rankings: #32 Athlon, #70 Lindy’s, #43 Phil Steele
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Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net, an official Google News site that generates millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter Football.com, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports You can follow him on Twitter