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Last updated: 08/28/2011 1:43 AM
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Football
Big Ten Countdown - Leaders Division - Fourth Place
By Tony Gerdeman

4. Illinois Fighting Illini

Predicted Finish

8-4 (4-4)

Two-Cent Overview

A budding superstar at quarterback, flanked by solid running backs. Promising, yet unproven receivers. A veteran offensive line. A questionable defensive line that will try to protect a trio of linebackers that could be up to big things this year. A secondary deep at corner, but questionable at safety.

Returning Starters

Eight on offense, six on defense and the placekicker.

Schedule

Sept. 3 Arkansas State (W)
Sept. 10 South Dakota State (W)
Sept. 17 Arizona State (W)
Sept. 24 Western Michigan  (W)
Oct. 1 Northwestern (W)
Oct. 8 at Indiana (W)
Oct. 15 Ohio State (W)
Oct. 22 at Purdue (L)
Oct. 29 at Penn State (L)
Nov. 12 Michigan (W)
Nov. 19 Wisconsin (L)
Nov. 26 at Minnesota (L)

Team Motto

"Avoid the Zookening!"

Goal

A New Year's Day Bowl. (Yes, we are aware there are no actual bowl games on New Year's Day this season.)

Best Case

Ten wins. Obviously since we have the Illini starting out 7-0, then three more wins to end the season should be attainable. Any more than that, however, and we start delving into the massively unlikely. They will definitely lose to one of Ohio State, Penn State or Wisconsin. They will also lose a game that they absolutely shouldn't, i.e. 'The Zookening'. That being said, the road schedule is as easy as a Big Ten team will ever have it. Avoiding Michigan State, Nebraska and Iowa is a gift from Jim Delany's loins.

Worst Case

Five wins. Amazingly, ten wins are more likely than five for Zook's bunch this year, but that doesn't mean the potential for failure is nominal.

Five Questions Looking For Answers

1. Will quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase take the proverbial next step?

2. Can running back Jason Ford give the Illini a trusted workhorse?

3. Will the receivers carryover their impressive practice performances?

4. Can anybody on this defense rush the passer?

5. Are the safeties capable of being the last line of defense?

Best Chance For a Big Loss

At Purdue. Not a blowout loss, mind you. But can you imagine anything more Zookish than beating Ohio State one week, only to lose to Purdue the next? No, you can't.

Most Important Game

Ohio State. This will be the first game on their schedule that the Illini shouldn't win on talent alone. It will take coaching, effort, and deft handling of adversity, basically everything that coaches preach. If they win this game, then they didn't just out-talent somebody, they outplayed them and outcoached them.

Best Road Game To Pack Up The Family Truckster And Travel To

At Minnesota. They have a mall!

Game They Shouldn't Lose, But Could

Western Michigan. The Broncos have a very solid offense that could pose problems to a team that may not have a pass rush. If the quarterback isn't under pressure, then they will be able to pick on the untested safeties.

Something To Look For

The Illini have three good cornerbacks. Tavon Wilson moved to safety to help the team out last season, and played well. He moves back to corner this year and will likely start. The other starter will probably be Terry Hawthorne, who has dealt with injuries in his first two seasons. He is a difference-maker when healthy. Justin Green started 13 games last season and finished seventh on the team in tackles with 55. The coaches consider all three starters and all three will see the field a ton.

Best Player

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Nobody doubts Scheelhaase's ability to move - he rushed for 868 yards last season as a redshirt freshman - but coming into this season, people have wondered how he would develop as a passer. Well, according to practice reports, he has been spectacular in that regard. Cliches like "pinpoint accuracy" have been tossed around, which no doubt eases the offense's concerns after losing Mikel Leshoure and breaking in some inexperienced receivers. Scheelhaase could approach 1,000 yards rushing and 2,500 yards passing this season.

Second-Best Player

Offensive tackle Jeff Allen. Allen has 34 starts in his career and was a second team All-Big Ten performer last season. He was a large reason why the Illini averaged over five yards per carry last season. He is versatile and can play either left or right tackle and excels at both.

Player People Are Expecting Too Much From

Defensive tackle Akeem Spence. Spence was a freshman All-American last season after starting all thirteen games and finishing with 45 tackles. But this year he will play without first-round NFL draft pick Corey Liuget next to him. Instead, he will have Craig Wilson, who was an offensive lineman last season.

Player People Will Be Pleasantly Surprised By

Receiver Darius Millines. Millines started three games last season as a true freshman, but only caught two passes. He missed the spring with an injury, but offensive coordinator Paul Petrino has said that Millines is the top receiver through practice right now. And he is apparently dynamite after the catch as well.

Best Newcomer

Linebacker Ralph Cooper. Cooper has been one of the best linebackers throughout practice, but will likely begin the season backing up Ian Thomas in the middle. In fact, he might back everybody up at some point. He's been impressive against the run, but also has shown the necessary speed to cover on passing downs. He may not start a game this season, but don't be surprised if he finishes the season with 30-40 tackles.

Best Reason They Won't Be Undefeated

The lack of a pass rush. The Illini have a total of six sacks from their returning defensive linemen. There is potential here, but it has yet to produce. More is needed from designated pass rusher Michael Buchanan, who finished with just two sacks last season.

Best Reason They Will Be Undefeated

The offense should be very good. Any time you've got a Petrino running the offense, things should be fine. Even last year with a redshirt freshman quarterback, the Illini averaged 42 points per game over their final seven contests. That's pretty remarkable in a BCS conference with a redshirt freshman calling the shots. Yes, the running game loses Mikel Leshoure, but they still return Jason Ford and a couple of promising freshmen. The receivers have stood out in practice as well, and that's against three solid cornerbacks.

Something They Do Well

Run the ball. Don't weep for the Illini. They may lose Leshoure's 1,697 yards from last year, but between Jason Ford and Nathan Scheelhaase alone, the Illini return over 2,000 career rushing yards, and the increased ability to throw the ball will only make it easier to run.

Something They Don't Do So Well

Beat ranked opponents. Since Juice Williams went cyborg against the #1-ranked Buckeyes in 2007, the Illini have gone 0-9 against ranked opponents.

What's Improved?

The passing game. We've already talked about the improved passing game, but it probably can't be mentioned enough. There were four games last season where Illinois failed to pass for 100 yards, and they were 2-2 in those games. In their two wins, they chose not to pass. In their two losses, they tried and were unable. As this offense becomes more versatile, they will become even more difficult to defend. They will also be better able to handle adversity, which they will surely face.

What's Gotten Worse?

The defensive line. You don't lose a first-round pick at defensive tackle, replace him with an offensive lineman, and then get better for it. They also have to replace defensive end Clay Nurse, whose four sacks were second on the team behind Corey Liuget's 4.5.

Anything Else We Should Know About?

Safety Trulon Henry is now a linebacker. With the indefinite suspension of Ashante Williams, who was the intended starter at this position, Trulon Henry was forced to step in from his natural safety position and take over. The position itself is designed to be manned by a safety-type who can cover, yet also lend run support. Henry should be able to fill both of those roles very well. He was an honorable mention All-Big Ten performer last season, so he should produce just fine.

Anything Else?

The safeties are a concern. With Henry now a linebacker, the safeties are currently Supo Sanni and Steve Hull. Sanni would have likely been a starter last year, but missed the season with an injury. Hull has apparently had a breakout summer and been impressive throughout practices. The coaches like their safeties to be able to play both spots, and they feel like they have that with Sanni and Hull. But until we actually see how they react to live footballs flying around, we won't really know what Illinois has back there.

Make a Wish

A pair of bookend pass rushers emerge from somewhere and anchor an aggressive and productive defense.

One Prediction

If he stays healthy, middle linebacker Ian Thomas will lead the conference in tackles.

Scandal Most Likely To Rock the Program

Shark-gate. Inspired by his water skiing idle, The Fonz, Ron Zook will attempt to duplicate his hero's greatest non-Tuscadero-related accomplishment--the jumping of a shark while on water skis. After successfully accomplishing the jump, it will be revealed that Zook actually jumped a dolphin. He will try to counter the revelation by claiming that "despite being just a dolphin, this fish was from the rough part of town."

If The Head Coach Was a Superhero, What Would His Super Power Be?

Super cooling. But not in the way you're thinking. He's a cooler in the way casinos use coolers. He brings about bad results from successful people. Look at the way he cooled Arrelious Benn after his sophomore season. He's a sorcerer.

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