We're counting down the weeks until kickoff by profiling a different Big Ten team each week. We decided to switch up the order to reflect 11W's predicted finish for the upcoming season, which can be found here and we'll also reach out to fellow bloggers for their inside opinion on important matters.
This week we take a look at the Illinois, perhaps the most glaring wild card in this 2009 season. They could have the best offense in the B10, with 8 returning starters, including a dynamic quarterback in Juice Williams, but the defense might have trouble stopping teams from scoring and that could cause the Illini to slip in the conference standings.
For most of the Illinois fan base, this is a huge year for Ron Zook and the Illini. They have had 1 winning season in the last 7 years and Zook has won only 18 of 48 games in his 4 years, with 9 of those coming in 2007. As we'll find out from our friends at Hail to the Orange, this is finally Zook's squad and will be a telling sign of years to come.
COACHING: I asked HTTO how much pressure is on the Zooker this season, considering his 41-44 career record and 0 bowl wins.
Zook has often said, in reference to his time at Florida, that you cannot judge the work of a head coach until he is allowed to take a full recruiting class all the way to graduation. Well the '06 recruits are now seniors, and there is not a single player left on the roster that played under Ron Turner. So regardless of the outcome this season, it is all on Zook. I think he has to get back to a bowl this year, He has more talent at every position, even the weak spots, than Turner did in the last few years of his tenure, and with an admittedly down Big Ten, there should not be any excuse for this team under performing. This is likely the last year for Juice and Benn, the two most recognizable and important players on the team, it may be quite some time before this much talent is amassed on the offensive side of the ball. Zook has to prove he can fully utilize the talent he has amassed.
OFFENSE: This offense has the potential to be sick. Their top 2 QB's from '08 return, as do their top 7 rushers and 9 of their top 10 receivers. The Illini were second last year in total offense, going for 439 yards a game, including a whopping 455 against OSU. There should be little doubt that they will be better this year.
Juice is back for his senior season, after leading the conference with 324 yards of total offense last year, earning him a 2nd team all conference selection. He ranked behind TP and Daryll Clark in passing efficiency, connecting on 219 of 381 for 3173 yards (a conference best), 22 touchdowns and 16 picks. He also lead the team in rushing, with 719 yards. If he gets hurt, Eddie McGee has some experience and has been rumored to have a more accurate arm over the last couple of seasons.
Dirty Danny Dufrene is also back for his senior year, after averaging 5.7 YPC in 2008, good for 663 yards on 117 attempts. Dufrene was the beneficiary of referee Stephen Pardoe's gambling addicted memory lapse in the 'Shoe during the 2007 season and has rushed for an astounding 185 yards on 16 carriers against the Buckeyes in his career. Sophomore Jason Ford should push Dufrene for some carries after rushing for 8 touchdowns last year and former Buckeye commit Justin Green has Illini fans excited for some new talent.
I am most interested though in seeing what former OSU commit Justin Green can do as a true freshman running back. He apparently has the speed of a home run threat, and Zook's track record shows that he will put true frosh out in the line of fire if he thinks he can win with them. He is the fastest running back available, and that alone makes should give him a few carries this season.
The receivers will be lead by the Arrelious Benn, Rittenberg's choice for the best player in the B10. Benn, a junior, is entering what should be his final season in Champaign, after hauling in 67 catches for 1055 yards and just 3 TD's. Behind him is a wealth of experience, including Jeff Cumberland and AJ Jenkins, who averaged 26 yards on 11 grabs last year. They also get the services of Florida transfer Jerrod Fayson, who caught 13 passes for 157 yards and 3 touchdowns in The Holy Tim Tebow's sophomore year. Fayson's speed may be creating the most buzz leading up to the first game.
Jarred Fayson obviously has alot of people excited about the speed he can add to the offense, and maybe more importantly the special teams.
The Illini have 3 of their 5 starters returning on the O-Line, seniors Eric Block and Jon Asamoah. along with sophomore Jeff Allen, who could be one of the top RT in the conference. Much like Ohio State, the success of this season will hinge largely on the play of the offensive line. If they can give Juice some time and the running backs some lanes, this team might average 30+ a game, but if they sustain some injuries or don't gel as a unit, it could cause Juice to force things and induce panic at Memorial Stadium.
DEFENSE: Illinois only has 4 of their top 10 tacklers back from last year and as mentioned, they should have to make just a handful of stops throughout the season, if the Illini are going to contend for a B10 title and make it back to a bowl game.
The line is replacing 3 starters, but have DT Josh Brent returning for his junior year, after he registered 34 tackles and 7 TFL in 2008. Brent could be one of those names that cause Buckeye fans anxiety during the September 26th showdown in Columbus, but he should see a number of double teams with his somewhat inexperienced linemates.
Martez Wilson, who recorded 73 stops last year will man the middle, while a pair of sophomores man the outside spots. The Illini have had a linebacker lead the conference in tackles in each of the last 3 years, but I can't imagine Wilson reaching the standard of 11W favorite J Lehman and Brit Miller of last year.
The secondary has some depth, returning 7 guys with limited starting experience, but still may be a weakness for this team. Safeties Donsay Hardeman and Travon Bellamy combined for 93 tackles last year, but only 1 pick and will lead this unit along with senior corner Dere Hicks.
KEY GAME: September 26, at Ohio State: Illinois has a tough slate, but did it right (no need for a 12th team or B10 title game) by scheduling 2 bye weeks and ending thier season Dec. 5 at home against Fresno State. With the opener agianst Missouri once again, the Illini play Illinois State the following week and then have a bye before visiting Columbus. They should take care of the Tigers, but if they slip, the game against OSU is followed by home tilts against Penn State and Sparty, which makes the Ohio State date pivitol.
BEST-CASE: Once again we go back to the experts.
Is 13-0 and a MNC too hopeful? Probably. I think that it shouldn't be too much to ask for this team to beat the opponents that it is clearly more talented than. In my probably too optimistic opinion, that works out to be 8 wins. If this team can catch a hot streak like they did in '07 and actually beat a couple of teams that it shouldn't beat then it could be another at large bid to the BCS. But lets say that the Illini make it through the first 5 games with only 1 loss, (a very daunting task.) this team will be better than I thought and could very well win the Big Ten. Maybe I have been drinking too much of the kool-aid lately.
WORST-CASE: If Juice continues to cough it up and the defense can't stop anybody, the Illini could face a 6-6 or 7-5 record. They close out conference play with road tilts at Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota, while taking on Michigan and Northwestern at home. But the Illini end the season at Cincinnati and home against the aforementioned Fresno. Though I doubt they reach this low, simply because their offense is scary, Ron Zook hasn't shown a convincing coaching performance in his four years and his in-game abilities will be more scrutinized in 2009.