You won’t hear me say this often, and I may regret it soon, but here it goes: I’m excited for the 2011 Illini football season to commence.
I’m currently writing from Champaign, Illinois, a city I consider to be the epicenter of fan discontentment. One tournament victory over the last five seasons for Bruce Weber’s underachieving Illini has left fans disgruntled, many of which have looked toward football for relief. In the two seasons following their surprising 2008 Rose Bowl berth, the Zookers have gone 8-16, failing to appear in a bowl game in both seasons.
But something interesting happened last season, something that hadn’t happened since 1999: Illinois won a bowl game.
Hope has taken residence in Champaign-Urbana, a cautiously optimistic vibe coursing through the streets. And perhaps I’m crazy to admit this, but there are legitimate reasons to believe the Illini could put together a successful 2011 campaign.
Reason #1: Schedule.
Goodbye, Missouri. Hello, Arkansas State. Beginning every season with an immediate tally in the loss column takes a toll, and the Illini will open the season at Memorial Stadium for the first time since 2006. It doesn’t take analytical gymnastics to predict at
least seven regular season wins, potentially eight. No Nebraska. No Michigan State. No Iowa. Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin all in Champaign. Eight home games. Ohio State in shambles. As Coach Zook said during his press conference at Big Ten Media Day, “We’re excited about our schedule.”
Reason #2: Talent.
While Mikel LeShoure, Corey Liuget, and Martez Wilson will be missed, the Illini return 15 starters, including starting QB Nathan Scheelhaase and leading receiver A.J. Jenkins.It remains to be seen whether RB Jason Ford can emerge from his backup role and
become a consistent workhorse, but he will be helped by an experienced offensive line, a group Zook has specifically mentioned as being a major strength. The defense has lost some key pieces, but the Illini will look to Senior LB Ian Thomas, CB Terry Hawthorne, and DL Akeem Spence to be significant contributors.
Reason #3: Coordinators
The hiring of Paul Petrino to run the offense and Vic Koenning to run the defense paid big dividends last season. The offense seemed to function with more of a purpose under Petrino, consistently feeding LeShoure, Scheelhaase, and Jenkins. Koenning helped Wilson become more assertive and developed Liuget into one of the best defensive tackles in college football. Senior OL Jeff Allen noted that this will be the first season in which he will be able to work with the same coordinator for two straight years. It will be interesting to see the momentum Petrino and Koenning can garner in their second seasons operating with many of the same players.
I think it might be healthy to cast at least a hint of doubt on the hope surrounding Illini football, as blind optimism can be a dangerous path. Here’s the reality: Illinois went 7-6 last season with what turned out to be a really talented roster. LeShoure led the
nation in rushing, Liuget became a first round pick, Wilson led the team in tackles, and Nate Bussey played himself into a late round pick. Several Illini went undrafted but have signed NFL contracts, including Jarred Fayson, Travon Bellamy, Randall Hunt,
Eddie McGee, and Clay Nurse. The Texas Bowl victory compels us to forget the fact that Illinois dropped 3 of their final 4 regular season games, including a loss at home to Minnesota.
It’s early on a Saturday morning, and, from where I’m writing, I can see Memorial Stadium, the sun glistening off the empty seats. As an Illini fan, I don’t need an active imagination to picture a sea of orange and blue dejectedly streaming toward the exits,
frustrated over another disappointing home loss. But each new college football season brings the possibility that things could change, that things could get better. Eight home games. An up-and-coming quarterback. Solid staff. You never know.
ARTICLE BY KEVIN ELLIOT
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