The start of the 2008 season was a highly anticipated affair in Champaign, but by the end of 2008 many fans were left scratching their heads.
The Illini were possibly the country's most inconsistent team last season, literally swapping wins and loss from week to week for half the season. How could they look so good and polished in wins over Michigan, Indiana, and Iowa and look so awful in losses to Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northwestern, and Western Michigan.
Yes, Western Michigan.
This season the Illini return a lot of key components from last season's team. They have the potential to challenge for the Big Ten title, but first Ron Zook must solve the inconsistency issues that plagued his team last season.
It will be more difficult to do that this season. The Illini schedule is potentially the most difficult in the Big Ten.
Sept. 5 Missouri (at St. Louis)
It is a rare occurrence to have the opening game of the season be such a pivotal one, but that is exactly what faces the Illini to start 2009.
Missouri has been in control of this series for most of it's existence and currently holds a four-game winning streak.
Juice Williams must be sick of losing this game. Zook certainly is.
The Illini have played their hearts out in the annual rivalry the last two seasons only to come up short. Zook needs this win. The psyche of his team needs this win.
Sept. 12 Illinois State
Whether the Illini get the win in St. Louis or not, it will be important to get a dominating win against Illinois State. The stretch of games that lie ahead will determine whether this team is a contender or a pretender.
Sept. 26 at Ohio State
The last time Zook led his team into the Horseshoe they left Columbus with a win. Juice Williams and most of the Illini remember that feeling.
It could be a good thing the Illini get the Bucks so early in the season. The Buckeyes have had some problems with Williams and will be breaking in a lot of new key parts on the defensive side of the ball.
Oct. 3 Penn State
The Illini played well last season, but the Penn State offense was just too explosive. The Lions did lose some key parts from last season's squad, but they have the potential to be just as explosive this season.
Oct. 10 Michigan State
The Spartans travel to Champaign for the third game in this brutal stretch for the Illini.
Michigan State may debut a different looking offense this season with the departure of Brian Hoyer and Javon Ringer. The addition of Oklahoma transfer and dual-threat Keith Nichol and the return of mobile Kirk Cousins should make for an interesting battle this spring in East Lansing.
Illinois must protect home turf if they want to return to a bowl game and this is a game Illinois could win.
Oct. 17 at Indiana
The schedule breaks for Illinois with three weeks of very winnable games.
The Hoosiers, after a one-year climb to mediocre and a second-tier bowl game, has once again fallen back to the bottom of the conference. Tim Lynch is trying to turn things around, but Indiana just isn't able to attract the kind of recruits needed to be competitive in the Big Ten.
Oct. 24 at Purdue
Purdue is in a rebuilding year with a first-year head coach and a ton of new talent on both sides of the ball. Illinois must get this road win.
Oct. 31 Michigan
The Wolverines are still rebuilding under Rich Rodriguez, but will be much stiffer competition this season.
Rodriguez will use last season's game as motivation, but the Illini must hold strong in Memorial Stadium.
Nov. 7 at Minnesota
Minnesota could be the Big Ten dark horse this season and will be playing in their new on-campus stadium. A tough test for the Illini.
Nov. 14 Northwestern
The Wildcats will be rebuilding after losing C.J. Bacher and Tyrell Sutton, but Pat Fitzgerald has done a tremendous job in Evanston and the Wildcats may not lose that big of a step.
Nov. 21 Fresno State
Illinois ends the season with two non-conference games.
Pat Hill and his Bulldogs are not afraid to play anyone and usually play well in big, out-of-conference games.
Nov. 28 at Cincinnati
The Illini will travel to Cincinnati to face the ever dangerous Bearcats in the season finale.
Zook has the talent to challenge for the Big Ten title, he has the schedule to build a lot of respect, but he must get his players to play beyond their potential.
Williams, facing his final season, must step up and take over as the leader of this team. This is his last chance to live up to the hype that surrounded him after his first season.
Will he be the hero or the goat?