Illinois. You put me in a happy state. Why? Because just like a potluck, you never know what you'll bring to the table.
There will be years, seemingly coming out from nowhere, where you'll pop with 10 wins and a league title. There will be seasons of follow up where you drop to near nothing. As I said in last year's Opening Statement, Illinois is the only team in college football to go to 2 BCS Bowls and have 5 seasons with 3 or fewer wins in the last ten years.
Even within a season, it's to be expected that you'll have an unexpected result. In your Rose Bowl run of 2007, there was still the baffling loss to a non-bowl Iowa. The following year, losing-record Illinois punked 9-win Iowa. You just never know what you're getting if someone brings you a plate of orange and blue. Enough with that. Let's eat.
1. Appetizer: In 1989, John Makovic and Jeff George's moustache led the Illini to a 10-2 season. In 1990, Makovic led the Illini to an 8-4 season (and a share of the Big Ten title). In the twenty seasons that have followed, the Illini have finished with winning records in only six of them. Illinois has not had back-to-back winning seasons at any point in these last twenty years. Uh oh! The Zookers are coming off of a winning season. Explain to me why this time it will be different, and the Illini will manage at least seven wins.
Ted Glover says: While it's true they lost a lot of talent to the NFL, the cupboard is not bare, and they have a schedule that looks like they could get 7 wins in their sleep. It seems Ron Zook learned not to put too much of the offensive burden on a young QB, like he did with Juice Williams. As a consequence, Nathan Scheelhaase flew under the radar most of last season while developing into one of the better QB's in the conference. He's relied on a punishing ground game, and he will again this year. Junior Jason Ford looks like Mikel Leshoure Redux -a big, powerful back that can be as productive as Leshoure was in 2010 - and if he is, Illinois will be fine, thank you very much. The defense will be more consistent this year, simply for the fact it will be tough to be as inconsistent as it was last year. They still have a lot of talent on that side of the ball, and their defensive coaches have a solid reputation. But in the end, it's always about the schedule, isn't it? And an easier schedule means the Illini should be an 8 win team.
Gone is the Arch Classic with Missouri; in comes Arkansas State, South Dakota State, an Arizona State team that might be the Pac-12 version of Illinois, Western Michigan and Northwestern...all at home...to open the season. At worst, that should be good enough for a 4-1 start, and their first road game is the next week in Indiana. That should be 5-1, minimum, and it's just a hop, skip, and a wobble to seven wins after that.
As a matter of fact, it's not inconceivable if Illinois is 8-0 to start the season. Okay, I'll wait for you to stop laughing, but hear me out. I can see the Illini going 6-0 to start the season, and then they get Ohio State at home. That would be the same Ohio State team that will be fielding Terrelle Pryor and his Merry Band of Tattooed Miscreants for only the second time. It's a home game, and Illinois always plays OSU tough. Get past that hurdle, they get Purdue, a team that they should beat. That's 8-0 kids, and the Zooker is the odds-on favorite for Big Ten Coach of the Year.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The seven near guarantees I see are Arkansas State, South Dakota State, Western Michigan, Northwestern, Indiana, Purdue, and Minnesota. Arizona State and Michigan are eminently winnable, and if they beat OSU I won't be stunned.
2. Salad: We heckle Ron Zook. A lot. It's easy. But, he's a former Big Ten Coach of the Year. He's dramatically improved the talent in the program. He's led Illinois to two bowl games. He's avoided any major scandals. He's got top notch assistants. True or False: Illinois has a coach that is, at worst, meeting realistic expectations.
Bama Hawkeye Says: Well, this is the nut of it, isn't it? It's the series of questions that all but the most elite of programs have to ask themselves. Where are we as a program? What can we realistically be? And most importantly, if we're not there, why not?
I believe that the Big Ten now has 4 Elite Programs: Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State & Nebraska. It takes an effort to fail at these schools. I think that there are two programs that have lower expectations than the rest of the league: Indiana and Northwestern. Due to the degree of difficulty, not much is expected (reference Pat Fitzgerald's huge new contract after a 7-6 season and a .539 winning percentage.). That leaves the middle six: Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota, Purdue, & Wisconsin.
The fans at these six schools can reasonably expect that 1) their school is attempting to win the conference; 2) that it is not realistic to expect 9-10 win seasons every year; 3) but that there will be years where the team can win 9 games and content for the title; and 4) the team will qualify for some bowl almost every year. Over the past ten years, Wisconsin and Iowa have been more consistent than Illinois and Minnesota, but the plan is remarkably similar. Get the right coach. Gather some talent. Pull an upset or two en route to a big year. Don't fall too far in the rebuilding seasons.
Where the plan fails for the middle six, is when the wrong coach is steering the ship. In the past, we have seen that in Illinois and Minnesota. We may well be seeing it now at Purdue. If the coach can't get the team to 9 or 10 wins in a four year period, if he can't keep the down years at 6-6 or 7-5 (thus, still making a bowl game), and if he can't keep a solid talent base that can counter punch against the Big Four, it's not going to work.
So where is Zook? He's shown that he can pull the upsets and get to a BCS Bowl. The question is, what can he do in a year like this one? Illinois is young this year. The 2012 and 2013 Illini should be better than the 2011 team. That doesn't excuse failure in a season like this, though. These are the years that Kirk Ferentz, Bret Bielema, and Joe Tiller ride out to a 7-5 record and a Texas Bowl appearance. If Zook can keep the program moving forward with another mid-level bowl bid, and increased expectations and excitement for the two seasons ahead, he'll be doing exactly what can be reasonably expected of him. If he lets this team, with this schedule, fall to 3-9 (1-7), or if he can't get the 2012 or 2013 Illini to 10 wins, he won't be. I'll say that Zook hasn't met expectations yet, but he may well be on his way to doing so.
3. Potato: As a Freshman, Nathan Scheelhaase completed 59% of his passes, had a better than 2-1 TD-INT ratio, and ran for over 800 yards. As an Iowa fan who has seen his defense terrorized by mobile quarterbacks, he terrifies me (Thanks Big Ten for making it so we'll likely never meet!). And yet, because his uniform is blue and orange (instead of blue and maize or blue and white), he has received little of the attention showered on others. Presuming his continued good health, is Scheelhaase the best Big Ten QB who will be starting in Week One?
Chadnudj Says: I'm sorry, did I miss the decision to bench Denard Robinson, Dan Persa, Kirk Cousins, Taylor Martinez, and James Vandenberg (don't laugh -- as a true freshman, the kid played well against Ohio State at Columbus), in addition to the suspension of Terrelle Pryor, that somehow vaulted Scheelhaase to the top of the B1G QB list? Did that happen? Because until that happens, Scheelhaase has a long way to go to qualify for "best QB in the B1G" status.
For a freshman QB, Scheelhaase had a great season -- the numbers and results don't lie. But he was wisely asked to do very little -- he never threw more than 27 passes in a game (and in games he threw 20+ times, the Illini were 3-5), he never threw for more than 250 yards, and he had NFL-draftee Mikel Leshoure in the backfield. Generally speaking, he played well against bad or terrible defenses -- he posted a QB rating over 100 only 7 times, against these awful/mediocre (at least last year) defenses: Southern Illinois, Penn State, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, Minnesota, and Baylor. Against defenses with a pulse (Ohio State, Michigan State, heck even Fresno State) he was downright pedestrian. And he was incredibly lucky, given the amount that the Illini ran him, that he didn't end up injured -- QBs that weigh 195 pounds that run the ball 185 times (and get sacked 22 times) don't tend to last too long in the B1G. Throw in the dreaded "sophomore slump" and the fact that the Illini's defense will be weakened by the losses of Martez Wilson and Corey Liuget -- thereby meaning Scheelhaase and the offense won't have the ball as much -- and the signs are there for Scheelhaase to struggle in year 2....it may not be a disaster, but I just don't see him making the leap in 2011 to top of B1G status.
Maybe Jason Ford is a worthy successor to Leshoure. Maybe the Illini's offense can continue to operate with Scheelhaase throwing short passes (and not many of them). Maybe Scheelhaase can stay healthy. But top QB in the conference? No. Not even close.
Bama Hawkeye Says: Don't sell the kid short. What he did last year was very impressive. Plus, it's not a bumper crop of B1G QBs. Pryor will be admiring his tattoo on opening day. Denard Robinson is going to try to become something that he's not in an unfriendly offense. Taylor Martinez looked mediocre at best down the stretch of the 2010 season. Dan Persa is coming off a major injury that may have a negative impact on his scrambling ability. As for Vandenberg, even as a Hawkeye, I'm required to point out that he played poorly in his other two 2009 appearances, a 17-10 loss to Northwestern and a 12-0 win over Minnesota. If you want to point to Kirk Cousins, I'd be inclined to agree with you, but I'd also point out that Scheelhaase didn't have a single game as atrocious as Cousins's wet-the-bed performances against both Alabama and Iowa.
4. Hot Dish: In their four Big Ten losses, the Illini defense gave up 26 points to Michigan State, 24 points to Ohio State, 38 points to Minnesota (Really? In Champaign, no less...), and in the defense's signature game - 67 points to Michigan.* With the unit's two best players (Martez Wilson and Corey Liuget) gone to National Football Lockout, is there any hope that Illinois can turn this defense around? How?
* Yes, it was a 3OT game, but it was 45-45 at the end of regulation, and the defense gave up three TDs and a 2 point conversion in three overtimes.
Graham Filler Says: First off, an addendum. Some people think that the Illinios defense was shit last year. Huh? 38th in the nation in yards allowed is pretty damn good for a team that came in with zero expectations. The defense dominated four squads (PSU, Baylor, Indiana, Purdue), which again, if your defense can take over a game, that's a HUGE plus. Onto the discussion.
There are three ways to be great at defense -
1) Feature so much damn talent that you overwhelm whatever offenses throw at you. Having people like the departed Martez Wilson helps a lot. He was ready to play in the NFL at age 15.
2) Play a new defensive scheme that fits your talent and confuses offenses.
3) Get a bunch of extraordinarily hard working, gritty guys who just want to hit. Break ‘em down in Spring and Summer ball so all they want to do is hit. These are the Pat Fitzgerald-ish guys whose team chant becomes something like LET ME SEE YOUR WAR FACE KILLKILLKILL
As far as we know Illinois doesn't have any of these. What they do have is a cake schedule that, with some simple comparisons, will probably fare better in games than last years' unit. Take, for example, the Illini's game versus Michigan. A young secondary and an overmatched LB unit wilted against the pressure of Rich Rod's spread offense. This year? There's no spread coming from the Maize and Blue and the Illini secondary will be vastly improved. What a difference a year makes.
Illinois essentially finished 5th in the Big Ten last year. That means there are four teams above them in the standings and six teams below them. Surprise, Illinois plays every team that was lower than them and skips Nebraska and Iowa (both better teams, we assume, than Illinois). This easy schedule will give them time early in the season to figure out starting roles, figure out who will be their unit leader...and figure out who is ready to make all the tackles now that the three leading tacklers are gone.
5. Dessert: In North Dakota, there is much hand-wringing over the NCAA's stance that the flagship university must change its school nickname from "The Fighting Sioux." The NCAA has, in the past, also picked at Illinois. This has resulted in the retiring of 1) the circle headdress logo; 2) the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk Trophy; and 3) Chief
NapervilleIlliniwek. However, the NCAA has stopped short of requiring the school to change its nickname (or school name -- or state's name for that matter). However, if Illinois were to have to give up the Illini, what team nickname would best exemplify the current state of the Illinois football program?
Ted Glover Says: The Illinois Stuart Smalleys. Illinois has been hampered by a couple things-the general perception that Ron Zook is playing checkers while the coach on the other sideline is playing chess, and an inability to really get a ton of respect because of that. Well, that changed somewhat last season. Zook was still Zook at times, but to his credit he revamped his coaching staff, did a good job developing Scheelhaase, coached Illinois to a winning season when no one really expected it, and absolutely crushed Baylor in their bowl game. For Illinois to be taken seriously, they need to have a winning season again this year, because gosh darn it, they're good enough, they're smart enough, and people like them.
Bama Hawkeye Says: The Illinois Groundhogs. Every so often, they'll come out of their hole to much fanfare. After that, they just go back to being a subterranean varmint.
Graham Filler Says: The Illinois Rollercoasters. Occasional thrills, lots of stomach-turning twists and turns...and at the end of the day, you kind of wish you had stayed home from the whole thing.