After previewing each side of the ball for this fall, time to start making some predictions for the Illini.
1. Illinois will play in their third straight bowl game– Not a very huge feat for programs like Florida and Alabama, but for Illinois it’s very huge. Just last season, for the first time in team history, they won two consecutive bowl games. The schedule, which I’ll break down later, sets up nicely for another bowl run.
2. Nathan Scheelhaase will have 20+ passing touchdowns– Call me crazy, but I think it’ll happen. For a team that doesn’t even know who its go-to-guy is right now, I think someone will step up and have a big year. Combine that with a slew of tight ends to throw to in the red zone, 20 touchdowns isn’t out of the question for a QB whose highest total came as a freshman with 17.
3. Illinois will have another top 10 defense– Lost Whitney Mercilus, Tavon Wilson, Ian Thomas and Trulon Henry, but they return a ton of talent to a defense that finished 7th in the nation in yards per game. Michael Buchanan and Jonathan Brown will lead the way along with Terry Hawthorne.
4. Illinois will have at least one All-American– Illinois doesn’t get these very often, and I say “at least one” because I wouldn’t be surprised to see two make the list. Michael Buchanan and Jonathan Brown are the two that I feel have a legit shot at making the list. Buchanan has the talent to have a Mercilus-like season and Brown is the best LB in the Big Ten.
5. Illinois will win at least nine games this year– Seven incredibly winnable home game helps with this prediction. If they can sneak in two road wins on a very tough road schedule, nine wins isn’t out of the question. Let’s predict the schedule now-
9/01- vs. Western Michigan- WIN- 1-0 (0-0)
9/08- @ Arizona State- WIN- 2-0 (0-0)
9/15- vs. Charleston Southern- WIN- 3-0 (0-0)
9/22- vs. Louisiana Tech- WIN- 4-0 (0-0)
9/29- vs. Penn State- WIN- 5-0 (1-0)
10/06- @ Wisconsin- LOST 5-1 (1-1)
10/13- @ Michigan- LOST 5-2 (1-2)
10/27- vs. Indiana- WIN 6-2 (2-2)
11/03- @ Ohio State- LOST 6-3 (2-3)
11/10- vs. Minnesota- WIN 7-3 (3-3)
11/17- vs. Purdue- WIN 8-3 (4-3)
11/24- @ Northwestern- WIN 9-3 (5-3)
If Illinois could sneak in another win and get to 10-2 (6-2) they could contend for the Leaders division lead and a spot in the Big Ten Championship. But I don’t see them being able to beat Wisconsin, OSU or Michigan this year when all those games are on the road. They might not even win all seven home games, but they should because of the way the schedule lines up for them. Everything hinges on how well the players mesh with the new coaching staff and new schemes. And if a WR steps up and becomes the go-to-guy the way AJ Jenkins did last year, the sky could be the limit.
Final prediction- 9-3 record, 5-3 in the Big Ten and a berth in the Capital One Bowl vs. Florida or South Carolina.