Illinois: The Big Ten's Darkhorse for 2009

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Illinois: The Big Ten's Darkhorse for 2009
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Prognosticators across the country are all taking a similar stance in this year's Big Ten race, with Ohio State or Penn State hoisting up another championship banner and a BCS bowl berth. 

Don't get me wrong, the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions both are loaded with talent, but if I may borrow a Lee Corso gem for a moment...

"Not so fast, my friends."

Slowly step away from the Buckeye kool-aid... hands off the Nittany Lion nectar.  Rummage through the Big Ten fridge... Sunny D, purple stuff... nothing beats a nice big glass of "Juice".

Juice Williams, that is.  The Illinois senior quarterback, with school passing records in reach, is back for another go at it, and he's accompanied by an offense that's loaded. 

Coming off a 5-7 bowl-free campaign in '08 (3-5 in Big Ten), Illinois is flying a little under the Big Ten radar, taking a backseat to not just Penn State and Ohio State, but also Michigan State—and heck, in some cases, the Golden Gophers, too.

But there are plenty of reasons to like Ron Zook and Illinois this year, starting with a veteran-laced explosive offense. 

First, there's Williams, the senior QB who averaged nearly 325 yards of total offense per game last season, which was 80+ yards a game more than Northwestern's CJ Bacher, who was second in the Big Ten.  Don't forget WR Arrelious Benn, arguably one of the best receivers in the country.

In fact, college football guru Phil Steele has Benn, who had 1,055 receiving yards in '08, ranked as the top WR in the nation.  The Fighting Illini are not just a 1-2 punch however, as the team returns eight starters on offense.  Other impact players include senior TE Michael Hoomanawanui, who was recently named to the 2009 John Mackey Award watch list.

There's plenty of additional senior leadership on the offensive side of the ball, including WR Jeff Cumberland, WR Chris Duvalt, RB Daniel Dufrene, RG Jon Asamoah, and C Eric Block.  The offense was not the issue last year, for a team that was second in the Big Ten in YPG differential—and this season, they'll be even better.

One of last year's question marks was the defense, which ended up being on the sour end of a number of shootouts, including a 52-42 defeat at the hands of Missouri, 38-24 loss to Penn State, and a 30-20 loss to Ohio State.  In fact, Indiana was the closest Illinois came to holding a team to single digits, allowing 13 points to the hapless Hoosiers.

Many critics may be quick to point out the team's two sack leaders (Brit Miller and Derek Walker—each with 6) have moved on, plus that fact that Illinois only returns five starters on defense, but there are plenty of positives with this young unit. 

Zook and his staff have beefed up the defense by adding six four-star recruits (according to Rivals.com) over the last two recruiting seasons.  Included in that mix is talented sophomore DT Corey Liuget, who will look to replace some backfield presence left by Miller and Walker.  FS Donsay Hardeman, a JuCo recruit in 2008, should be in the mix despite missing the spring with a neck injury.

Early projections have three senior starters on defense (including Hardeman), therefore this is a team that will gain confidence and experience as the season progresses.  If the pieces fall into place, there's enough talent present for this Illini defense to frequently get the ball into the hands of the explosive offense.

Finally, offense and defense aside, take a look at the Illinois schedule for 2009.  The Illini open up the '09 campaign at a neutral site, taking on a Missouri team that has lost significant talent, including QB Chase Daniel and WR Jeremy Maclin, who are off to the NFL.  The second non-conference game is against Illinois St., a team that went 3-8 last season. 

Chalk up a 2-0 start right there.

Following that, Illinois gets a bye week before a brutal trio to open the Big Ten schedule.  A rested Illini team will open at Columbus and follow that roadblock with Penn State and Michigan State, both of which are home games.  It's very possible that Zook and Co. could escape with two wins in this stretch, and then follow with five "easier" conference games, with the biggest challenge potentially being a trip to Minnesota to face the Golden Gophers, a team Illinois has struggled against in the past.

One more bye week, and it's two more non-conference games, with the headliner being a trip to Cincinnati to take on Brian Kelly's Bearcats, a team that made a BCS appearance in '08.  Looking back on the schedule, Illinois has two well-placed bye weeks against two schools that were a part of the BCS last season.  On top of that, Illinois has a favorable home schedule, facing the Nittany Lions, Spartans, Wolverines, and Wildcats all at home.

While an undefeated season is highly unlikely, there's no reason to believe Illinois couldn't finish the season on December 5th with two losses, enough for a possible share of the Big Ten title and a BCS berth.

All in all, the football critics need to take a step back and look at Illinois when thinking of the cream of the crop in the Big Ten.  Ignore last year's 5-7 record—this is a team that won nine games and played in the Rose Bowl in 2007.  Illinois is loaded with talent, specifically on offense.  The Illini are going to cause headaches for Big Ten teams that are not comfortable with a run and gun style of play.

If a team is going to beat them, it will first have to attack the two-headed monster in Juice Williams, then follow up by trying to put an air assault on a defensive unit that lacks experience, but doesn't lack in talent.  The key to this team's success is going to lie in the hands of Juice, who is just 2,300+ passing yards from eclipsing Jack Trudeau's record at Illinois.

Toast 'em up Champaign, grab a glass of "Juice", Zook and the boys are back. 

Expect big things.

Be sure to check out blogs like this and more over at firstandbigten.com

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