We're counting down the weeks until kickoff by profiling a different Big Ten team each week. Today, the Zooker's Illini are up.
For those of you that don't have the BTN, you should be thankful, the Illini's victory over Ohio State last year has been the only game they have replayed from the Bucks season. It was the first time Illinois had beat a #1 ranked team since 1956 and this year's game in Champaign sold out in less than an hour.
COACHING: Ron Zook enters his fourth season at the helm and will be looking to improve upon his 13-23 record in Champaign. His program took a major step forward in 2007 by going 9-4, but he lost some key players and it is going to be difficult to match last year's win total.
OFFENSE: Illinois returns 7 starters on offense, but gone is Rashard Mendenhall's 1,681 rushing yards and 2 offensive line starters. They do have Juice Williams back, but did he improve enough as a passer to carry this team on his back?
Williams accounted for 192 combined yards a game last season and threw for the fewest yards amongst Big Ten quarterbacks, but rushed for a conference high 755 yards. He solidified the starting job in the last half of the season, but with a capable back up in Eddie McGee, Juice might have a short leash if he can't hit his receivers.
Daniel Dufrene, a 5'11" 204 pound junior will try to replace Mendenhall at running back. Yes, Dufrene is the guy who cost Cleveland from the Family Guy his job, after his blatant fumble against OSU last year wasn't reviewed. He will run behind 3 returning starters on the offensive line, including potential all conference center Ryan McDonald.
Arrelious Benn is back after leading this team with 54 catches and 676 receiving yards. He will lead an inexperienced group, whose next leading returner is Brian Gamble with 16 catches. Freshman Cordale Scott, a Glenville product could get into the mix early on and give Juice another legitimate target.
DEFENSE: Illinois returns 6 starters on defense, including 3 linemen and both their corners. Gone however is J Lehman, the heart and soul of not only Illinois, but all of America.
Vonta Davis is one of the best corners in the country and will team up with fellow junior Dere Hicks, trying to improve upon their combined 128 tackles, 6 interceptions and 13 PBU's. Both starting safeties are sophomores and Zook will have two new outside linebackers, but one of them, Matez Wilson could have a breakout year.
KEY GAME: The key game is the opener against Missouri. The Illini have lost three straight to Mizzou, including a 40-34 loss a year ago. A poor performance against Mizzou could continue the question marks in the passing and running games.
BEST-CASE: Obviously the best case is Illinois continues to build off last year's success, beat Mizzou, PSU, Michigan and Wisconsin, lose to Ohio State and finish 11-1 with another shot at a BCS game.
WORST-CASE: However, Zook and the Illini are going to have a tough time reaching the 9 win mark of last year. Illinois has only 6 home games, playing Missouri in St. Louis, W. Michigan in Detroit and at PSU, Michigan, Wisconsin and Northwestern. The Illini could be 2-3 heading into home games against Minnesota and Indiana.
I know Ohio State made Juice look like a Heisman winner last year, but I'm not sold on Juice and Illinois just yet. In 2001, the Illini went 10-2, then won 13 games in the next 5 seasons. They are ranked #19 to start the season, but their schedule is brutal, with Missouri, at UM and at Penn St. in the first five games. This is a pivotal year for Zooker's program and if they get off to a rough start, they have a chance to win 5 of their last 7 and reach another bowl game.