As the Fighting Illini attempt to make up for their underachieving 2008 campaign, they will have to start with quite the kick to the teeth. In fact, there is a good chance they lose four of their first five games, and probably lots of teeth as well, to start the season.
The Illini begin their 2009 campaign against Missouri, ranked directly above the Illini at 34 in the first USA Today Poll, in St. Louis and follow that game up with their easiest game on the schedule, against Illinois State in Champaign under the lights. Two winnable games, but only one guaranteed win.
Then comes the steel-toed boot to the mouth.
The Illini travel to Columbus to take on No. 6 Ohio State then play No. 8 Penn State and Michigan State, currently ranked 27th, but with the second highest expectations to blow up this season behind Iowa in the Big Ten, at home in back-to-back weeks.
Although the USA Today Rankings tend to overrate teams solely on their name (Notre Dame) and give teams who do not play anyone a nice cushion to sit on to start the season (Boise State, TCU, Utah, Brigham Young), Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State are arguably the best three teams in the Big Ten, unless Iowa lives up to their expectations.
Having to play the best three teams in your conference in a row is a tough road to winning that conference. But to be the best, you have to beat the best.
One could say this is good for the Illini, since they by all logic should be healthy for their toughest matchups, but starting 1-4 is a tough hole to dig yourself out of.
All the talk about the Illini is regarding their explosive offense with Juice Williams, Arrelious Benn, Jeff Cumberland, and a quartet of running backs featuring senior Daniel (Andy) Dufrene, Jason Ford, Mikel Leshoure, and Troy Pollard.
However, if that offense is as inconsistent as it was last year to go along with their terrible defense, no amount of points can save them.
The defense needs to be decent instead of awful for the Illini to get through this beginning stretch of the 2009 season and beyond.
Martez Wilson's move from outside linebacker to middle could be a huge difference, but the defensive line will need to get some kind of pressure against the good offensive lines they didn't move last year.
If Josh Brent and Sirod Williams are healthy the defensive line, and the defense as a whole, should be fine.
The fact the offense could explode at any minute puts very little pressure on the defense to be dominant.
Whether the offense explodes or implodes, however, is up to Juice Williams. Williams will have Eddie McGee breathing down his neck if he shows to be as unreliable as last year.
Should be an interesting first couple of weeks for the Illini.