Last year, despite a Rose Bowl bid the previous season, Illinois didn't even get to a bowl game after three straight losses to finish the season.
This season, with such players as Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn and the other 6 returning starters, Illinois looks to have one of the top offenses in the country, but hardly ANYONE is talking. The public's infatuation with the Big 12, SEC, USC, and the Big Ten's big three have kept such teams as Illinois WAY under the radar.
Quietly, Benn has become the best Wide Receiver in the nation, and Ron Zook has put together quite a team.
The shock of Illinois' appearance in the Rose Bowl was only matched by the shock of their three losses including one to Western Michigan to close out the season. There are a few things that point to this season being better. Their Turnover margin last year was -6 which is bad. That is likely to improve. Also, they lost 27 starts to injury which is not likely to repeat. Either one of those things improve they make this season much better.
There are problems with this coming year however, as their schedule is very, very tough. 3 of their first 4 games are Missouri, Ohio State, and Penn State. They finish off their season with two straight games against tough OOC opponents as well, going to Cincinnati and then playing Fresno State. 8 of the 12 teams they play made a bowl last year, and three of them went to a BCS bowl.
Also, they're defense is hurting after losing Brit Miller and Vontae Davis to the draft. But, if their defense even approaches last year's strength, the offense should keep them going.
As most of you know, the Big Ten is hurting. Ohio State is the only team you can count on being near the top year to year. Even Penn State didn't stay near the top in 06 and 07. Michigan, who used to be a team you could count on being in or around the BCS every year has fallen on hard times, having their first losing season since 1967 last year. Iowa is good for 8-4 every year, and Mich State is improving, but every other team in the Big Ten can't stick more than one winning season together anymore. The bowl record the past four years is atrocious at 9-20. If the Big Ten could just get another team to be a contender year in and year out, and possibly get a third team to finish in the top ten, it just might be ok.
Enter Illinois. Ron Zook this year has a team that just might fit the bill.
An early win against Mizzou could put them on the map, but then they have two straight killer games as they go to Columbus for OSU and play the Nittany Lions at home. It's possible they go into week 6 with a 1-3 record. But, if they are 2-2 or even, dare I say, 3-1, going into that stretch, they should win every other game. On Dec 6th this year, if Illinois is looking at a 10-2 record, we've got 3 top ten teams coming out of the Big Ten.
Look out nation, here come the Fighting Illini.