Six teams down, six to go. The next stop on our virtual road tour is Champaign, Illinois, home of the Fighting Illini.
SEVENTH IN A SERIES: THE ILLINOIS COCKTAIL PARTY PREVIEW
Illinois at a glance...
First Season: 1890
Head Coach: Ron Zook (5th Year, 18-30 (.375))
All-Time Record: 563-513-51 (.522)
2010 Record: 7-6 (4-4 Conference)
Last year, the Illini demonstrated a characteristic inconsistency that has come to exemplify the Ron Zook era. Lose to a beatable Missouri team in the opener, take the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes to the wire. Blow out Penn State on the road, lose to a lame duck Minnesota. Topple ranked Northwestern, drop trough in Fresno.
Heading into bowl season no one really knew what to make of the Illini. Heading out of bowl season the same might be said. The 38-14 dismantling of overachiever Baylor in the Texas Bowl put a feather in Ron Zook's cap, and showed why the Illini had the best rushing attack in conference. But what could account for tepid performances against Indiana, Purdue, and Minnesota?
[Conversation Pointer: The Illini really know how to get it done on the ground, with Top 5 rushing attacks in the B1G since 2006. But where has the passing game been? Illinois has ranked in the bottom 2 in conference for passing yards four out of the last five seasons.]
In the cupboard...
Total returning starters: 13 (6 Offense, 6 Defense, 1 Special Teams)
In many ways, Illinois football heading into 2011 is a tale of two cities. On one hand, Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is a solid playmaker with a capable command of Paul Petrino's offense. And speaking of the coordinators, the addition of coach Mike Gillhamer from the Carolina Panthers to the secondary gives Ron Zook one of the best crops of assistants in the Big Ten. That's a lot of game day acumen. But will it make up for a serious loss of star power? Gone are Mikel Leshoure, Corey Liuget, Clay Nurse, Martez Wilson, Nate Bussey, Jarred Fayson, and Eddie McGee, three of whom went early to the NFL. Questions abound in the defensive front seven, and at wide receiver.
Still, you cannot discount the benefit of a favorable schedule. Gone is perennial ball buster Missouri. In place of the traditional neutral site matchup are five home games in a row to open the 2011 season. Better yet, the Illini only face one road opponent (Penn State) that went to a bowl last season. That's a recipe for success in Champaign. Especially if Zook continues his tradition of developing punishing running backs.
|09/10/11||South Dakota State|
|10/29/11||@ Penn State|
|12/03/11||Big Ten Championship|
[Conversation Pointer: There's no reason why the Illini can't be 5-1 and ranked heading into an October 15th matchup at Ohio State. If Ron Zook can continue his tradition of playing the Buckeyes tough, he'll have a chance at becoming one of the front runners in the Leader's Division with a win at Penn State.]
Stat to make you sound smart...
Illinois finished last in Big Ten in 2010 in punt returns and 100th nationally in kickoff returns. If they can make even a modest improvement in the return game, they're bound to improve on scoring offense.
MONDAY | Cocktail Party Preview
TUESDAY | Point/Counterpoint
WEDNESDAY | Ron Zook Expose
THURSDAY | OTE Potluck
FRIDAY | Keeping the Enemy Close - Rival Blogger Interview