Friday, August 01, 2008

Prelude to a Season... #19

#19.) Illinois

What You Need to Know: Last year was a special year for Ron Zook and company, turning 4 wins their previous two seasons into a 9-win affair highlighted by a win at Ohio State and a Rose Bowl berth. Illinois stands on the verge of becoming a consistent Big Ten threat, with locking up Zook to a contract extension and multiple assistants like offensive coordinator Mike Locksley receiving a hefty raise and multi-year contract. In addition Memorial Stadium is undergoing a facelift and expansion. It provides stability and recruiting power to a school that previously had none.

The Illini return key players on both sides of the ball, and are deep at most skill positions. However, replacing All-Big 10 running back Rashard Mendenhall will be a daunting task. Most notably returning is duel-threat QB Juice Williams and All-American candidate at CB Vontae Davis. The defensive line is loaded with defensive end star power to rival any school in the country, allowing the front 7 to provide frenetic consistent pressure on opposing QBs.

Who You Need to Know and Their 07 Stats:
QB Juice Williams: 1743 pass yds, 13 pass TD, 755 rush yds, 7 rush TD
DE Will Davis: 9.5 sacks
WR Arrelious Benn: Big 10 Freshman of the Year, 54 rec. , 676 yds, 2 TD

Game To Watch: The schedule for the Illini is simply brutal. And brutal early. After an opening weekend clash with Missouri in St. Louis, Illinois gets two soft games with Eastern Illinois and Louisiana-Lafayette before hitting the road to Penn State and Michigan. It is conceivable that they could be anywhere from 2-3 to 5-0. If the latter is the case, then two games become huge, and the Illini must win one of them to have a shot at the Big Ten and winning both could land an outside shot at a BCS Championship. The two games? October 25th at Wisconsin and November 15th hosting Ohio State.

They'll Do Well If...: Juice Williams is the straw that stirs the Illini's drink. If he can become more comfortable in the pocket and not operate from a run-first mentality as well as upping his completion percentage and dropping his INTs, the Illini will be poised to make another run at the Big Ten title. Health is only a concern to the skill positions on offense, as the defensive roster is loaded with talent.

Season Outlook: The Big Ten will come down to a three team race, with Illinois a close third in the pecking order. Similar to last year, an upset or two along the way isn't out of the question, and should they shock the world in Madison, WI or beat the Buckeyes in Champaign, they could be sitting as the team to beat. The early season schedule is brutal and depending on momentum built early, the Illini could realistically be looking at 6-1 before they are tested at Wisconsin. Rational thinking says look for the Illini to clock in around the 9-3 mark and a third-place finish in the Big Ten with an Outback Bowl berth.

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