Big Ten Football Previews – Part VII
Editor's Note: This is the seventh in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back often to see who’s next...
Team: Illinois Fighting Illini
Tidbits ... Illinois had more wins in 2007 than they did the previous four years combined. The last time the Illini went 5-7 following a BCS Bowl season they went 1-11 the year after...
2008 Prediction / actual: 9-3, 5-3 (T-2nd), Capital One / 5-7, 3-5 (T-6th)
2007 Prediction / actual: 4-8, 1-7 (T-10th) / 9-4, 6-2 (T-2nd) - Rose Bowl
2006 Prediction / actual: 5-7, 2-6 (8th) / 2-10, 1-7 (T-10th)
2005 Prediction / actual: 4-7, 2-6 (10th) / 2-9, 0-8 (11th)
2004 Prediction / actual: 4-7, 1-7 (T-10th) / 3-8, 1-7 (T-10th)
2003 Prediction / actual: 5-7, 3-5 (T-7th) / 1-11, 0-8 (11th)
2002 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 4-4 (T-6th) / 5-7, 4-4 (T-5th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 6-5, 3-5 (T-7th) / 10-2, 7-1 (1st)
*Note, bowl shown only from 2004 on as I did not predict the bowl berths prior to that season.
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 6 defense, 2 kickers
Key Returnees: QB Juice Williams, WR Arrelious Benn, DT Corey Liuget, LB Martez Wilson
Key Losses: LT Xavier Fulton, C Ryan McDonald, DE Will Davis, CB Vontae Davis
Looking Back ... Last season's outcome was not what folks in Illinois expected after a seven game turnaround and subsequent Rose Bowl berth in 2007. The Illini were violently unpredictable a season ago, struggling at times with what appeared (heading into the season) to be a well-oiled offensive machine and a defense that could never make the big plays needed to sustain 2007's success. For my money, the jury is still out on Ron Zook. He has grabbed some headliner recruits in his time at Illinois, but when will that turn into what every fan desires - a consistent winner?
Outlook - Offense ... Get used to this phrase - "Williams to Benn ... touchdown Illinois." Minnesota has Weber to Decker but this tandem is more explosive than its northern counterpart and must step up big if Illinois is to avoid another second division finish. The duo only connected for three scores last year, something that needs to improve if Illinois is to be the threat they ought to be. The passing game is more than Juice and Arrelious, however. Jeff Cumberland is a big target and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui has tremendous upside. The Illini will miss center Ryan McDonald and has to replace the left tackle as well, but should be sound. If things are to really pan out for this team, the running game needs to be a consistent threat. Daniel "Don't call me Andy" Dufrene has big play potential but needs to also be a stabilizing factor.
Outlook - Defense ... The bad news for Illinois is that the offense might need to score in droves just to ensure a winning season. It isn't that the defense is bad, but there aren't a lot of proven playmakers on this side of the ball. The Illini are young and athletic, which means big plays will happen, but so will big mistakes. The anchor of the unit is linebacker Martez Wilson. The junior has the size and speed to be a force for this defense. He also has a decent defensive line in front of him and a solid secondary behind him. The Illini will miss Vontae Davis, but Dere Hicks is a great corner and the safeties are sound. No matter who the personnel, this defense MUST be better than it was a year ago if Illinois is to sniff a bowl game, let alone the upper tier teams in the conference.
Outlook - Special Teams ... Illinois brings back all the key cogs in what was a decent, if somewhat up and down special teams unit. Sophomore kicker Matt Eller was 15-20 a season ago and should be better with a season under his belt. Punter Anothony Santella needs to get more distance out of his kicks. The return game should be great, with Benn and A.J. Jenkins always threatening to take it to the house.
9/5 - vs. Missouri
9/12 - ILLINOIS STATE
9/26 - at Ohio State
10/3 - PENN STATE
10/10 - MICHIGAN STATE
10/17 - at Indiana
10/24 - at Purdue
10/31 - MICHIGAN
11/7 - at Minnesota
11/14 - NORTHWESTERN
11/27 - at Cincinnati
12/5 - FRESNO STATE
Key Games: 9/26 - at Ohio State, 10/3 - PENN STATE, 10/10 - MICHIGAN STATE
Prediction ... Even without Iowa and Wisconsin on the slate, this is a pretty brutal schedule. Missouri is always a tough opener, and then the three week run of "States" is an early make or break stretch. The Illini, assuming bowl eligibility, might be in good shape as such given two games well after the rest of the Big Ten calls it quits for the regular season (except Wisconsin). There are plenty of chances to shine or fail, and the pressure is on for the Illini to prove that '07 was no fluke.
OOC: 3-1 (lone loss comes at Cincinnati)
B10: 5-3 (wins over Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan and Northwestern)
Overall: 8-4, T-4th in the conference, Alamo Bowl