Suggested Team Slogan: Keepin' football relevant in Illinois!
What We Learned In 2007: Illinois fans learned, or remembered, how much fun college football can be when your team isn’t getting rolled every Saturday. Last season the Illini’s nine victories surpassed the previous four seasons’ COMBINED win total.
The team learned what an upgrade in talent can do. The last several seasons of the Ron Turner regime saw the Illini winning recruiting battles with the likes of Ball State and Toledo and the results on the field reflected it. Ron Zook came in and started going up against the likes of Notre Dame, Iowa, and Nebraska for recruits and slowly, but surely, the product on the field has improved. Zook said that his program would go in stages; lose big, lose small, win small, win big. He was sure right about those first two steps, but in the “win small” season, the Illini went to the Rose Bowl. Now we’ll see if they can top that in the “win big” season.
Finally, the rest of the Big Ten learned that the Illini can run the ball! However, they couldn’t do much else. The Illini ranked 5th in the NCAA with 256.8 ypg on the ground, but were 109th through the air with 168.2 ypg.
Expectations in 2008: The team is expected to be strong once again, but there are some holes that need to be filled after losing Big Ten MVP Rashard Mendenhall to the NFL and the anchor of the defense J Leman to graduation. To me, the season will hinge on the play of Junior QB Juice Williams. If defenses are allowed to overload the line of scrimmage to stop the run, it will be a disappointing season. Without a stud running back to lean on, Juice needs to continue his evolution into a QB that can hurt defenses on the ground and through the air. In the second half of last season, he showed that he is ready to take that next step. Big Ten Freshman of the Year Arrelious Benn at wideout will help make it easier.
The defense is expected to be the strength of the team. The defensive line is considered to be one of the ten best in the nation. Only six starters return from last season’s squad, but the upgrade in recruiting is expected to make its impact with a very talented group of sophomores, including DT Josh Brent and LB Martez Wilson, stepping in to make the defense even better. Key returnees are Senior DE Will Davis (9.5 sacks in 2007) and Junior DB Vontae Davis (4 INTs).
The Fighting Illini certainly won’t have a favorable schedule to work with. They open up the season in St. Louis where they will face off with the Missouri Tigers in the annual rivalry game. Conference road games at Penn State, Michigan, and Wisconsin will make a return trip to Pasadena difficult to achieve.
Big Men On Campus: On the offensive side of the ball, QB Juice Williams is the straw that stirs the drink. He is a threat with his feet and now he has to start being a threat with his arm on a more consistent basis. He will have one of the best targets to throw to in WR Arrelious Benn, Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2007. All-Big Ten candidates Xavier Fulton and Ryan McDonald will be the leaders on the O-Line.
The strength of the defense will be the defensive line, where Will Davis and David Lindquist will be All-Big Ten candidates. Illini fans had better enjoy Junior DB Vontae Davis this season because there is a strong chance that he will be in the NFL in 2009. The most exciting newcomer to the starting lineup is Sophomore LB Martez Wilson. His combination of size and speed has the Illini staff convinced that he will be a star.
What Will Keep the Illini From Meeting Expectations?...If Juice Williams can’t keep defenses honest with his arm, that will put pressure on the running game to match last season’s output. With Rashard Mendenhall gone to the NFL, the Illini don’t have a clear cut No. 1 running back to fill the hole. Redshirt freshman Troy Pollard showed flashes last season, but the reason he is a redshirt freshman is that he tore up his knee in week 4 last year and his health is a concern. He has been declared healthy, but we will see. After Pollard there is Junior Daniel Dufrene and freshmen Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford. While none of them will match Mendenhall’s numbers, they need to come close as a group.
Being an alumnus of the fine university located in Champaign, IL, I can vouch for the fine quality of the females on campus. However, it was always felt that none of them wanted to be cheerleaders. Either we were being incredibly picky or the quality has improved over the last 15 years (man, I’m getting old), but if nothing else, if you like legs, it looks like the U of I is where you want to be! Grade: B+ for the gams.
Schedule and Predictions:
8/30 - Missouri in St. Louis: Great game, but Mizzou pulls it out 27-21
9/6 - Eastern Illinois: Illini win 44-10
9/13 - Louisiana-Lafayette: Illini win 31-14
9/27 - @ Penn State: Illini take advantage of PSU’s new QB and score just enough to win 17-14
10/4 - @ Michigan: If there is a year to win in the Big House, this is it. Illini win 24-14
10/11 - Minnesota: This could be ugly. Illini win 45-14
10/18 – Indiana: Illini win 28-13
10/25 - @ Wisconsin: Close, but no cigar. Badgers win 31-24
11/1 – Iowa: Of all the games on the docket, the Illini can lose any of them but this one. I want blood. Illini win 34-14
11/8 – Western Michigan in Detroit: This could be a trap game, but I think the Illini stay focused and win 27-13
11/15 – Ohio State: The Ohio State University Buckeyes won’t be looking past this game again. Illini lose at home 27-20
11/22 - @ Northwestern: Rivalry game that the Illini win 34-20.
If accurate, that would put their record at 9-3 (6-2). Depending on if Ohio State is in the BCS Championship Game or not, that should be good enough for the Capital One or Outback Bowl.