It's nice to dissect the numbers behind the Missouri Tigers and evaluate their players until you're blue in the face, but it's just as purposeful to get a fresh perspective on things from time to time.
This season will be one of the more uncertain yet riveting in Missouri football history, so it goes without saying there will be plenty to talk about. But what are others around the country saying about the Tigers?
With the Sept. 5 season opener less than 48 hours away, I've been brainstorming for new ways to bring you a unique perspective on this year's team from week to week, and I think I've done just that.
Leading up to each game this season, I'll attempt to reach out to a writer who covers Missouri's opponent for that week for a little friendly banter, whereby the goal is to get some inside information on that team and what they're doing to prepare for the Tigers.
This week, I was lucky enough to exchange words with esteemed Champaign News-Gazette writer Loren Tate, who, among other things, gives his thoughts on Illinois' season, says what he expects from quarterback Juice Williams in 2009, and ventures a guess as to how this Saturday's Arch Rivalry game will play out.
RF: With teams like Ohio State and Penn State getting all of the attention prior to the season, do you think Illinois is in a position to challenge the perennial powers en route to a Big Ten title in 2009? And, if so, what has to happen for them to make a run?
LT: We'll know early because the Illini play Ohio State [Sept. 26] and Penn State [Oct. 3] at the outset. History tells us that Illinois will be extremely fortunate to win either game. For it to happen, Juice [Williams] needs to throw accurately without interceptions, and the defense needs to play better than we anticipate.
RF: Last season, Juice Williams threw for more than 3,000 yards for the first time in his career, yet he still managed to lead the team in rushing with 719. Will new offensive coordinator Mike Schultz let Williams continue to do his dual-threat thing, or is the mindset to keep Williams in the pocket longer, thus making the offense a bit more conventional?
LT: Schultz wants to run the football, and Juice is a big part of that. He is nearly 240 pounds and rock hard. I think you'll see an offense more like in 2007, but I haven't seen Schultz work before, and I really don't know what opposing defenses will emphasize. My guess is that Illinois will take what they give because the offense can go either way.
RF: Much has been made of Ron Zook's ability to recruit, but he is just 18-30 since arriving on campus in 2005, including a disappointing 10-22 in conference play. Is patience among the administration wearing thin on him, or is there an enduring faith in Champaign that he'll soon be able to turn all the solid recruiting classes into sustained success on the field?
LT: Nobody could possibly blame Zook for his first couple of years [2-9 in '05; 2-10 in '06]. He has a multi-year contract and, if the Illini underperform, it'll be disappointing but won't change anything.
RF: The Illini return 12 starters from 2008, including seven players on an offense that produced 439 yards and 28.7 points per game last season. Despite the large number of holdovers, are there any areas of concern entering the season?
LT: Areas of concern: (1) special teams and especially the punting, (2) uncertainties at defensive end, linebacker and safety and (3) Juice's tendency to throw interceptions.
LT: Fayson looks very good in practice. He figures prominently in the pass attack and will return punts. So, yes, he is "equipped," but we haven't seen him do it in games. I am always suspicious.
LT: Thomas would have played extensively as the third cornerback. It just means, probably, that Travon Bellamy will back up both positions. It is very thin. That's why [Terry] Hawthorne was moved from offense.
LT: Dufrene is questionable. I look for [Jason] Ford to start if he isn't ready. I think I like Ford better anyway. Illinois will alternate at the position.
RF: Missouri has racked up 92 points on Illinois over the past two meetings. What is the game plan to stymie first-year Tiger quarterback Blaine Gabbert and an offense that features a ton of unproven players?
LT: They keep saying their main concern is stopping [Derrick] Washington after the Tigers ran for more than 200 yards last year. The Illini are worried about Mizzou's splits and the running game. Of course, Gabbert is a concern as well.
RF: Missouri has won each of the four games in the Arch Rivalry series. From an Illini perspective, is there a psychological disadvantage that comes along with the streak?
LT: I think so. We see it in the basketball series. Missouri was better than Illinois last winter, but the Illini won the game, 75-59. Go figure. Illinois probably needs something good to happen early to shake that psychological business.
RF: If anything, what are Zook and his staff saying about this Missouri team?
LT: They always have great things to say about Missouri, and everybody else they play. It is called "coach speak."
RF: How about a Saturday prediction?
LT: I don't give predictions, but I think Illinois has a clear advantage in experienced playmakers and should be able to pull it out.
His name synonymous with University of Illinois athletics, Loren Tate has been covering the Fighting Illini for The News-Gazette for more than 40 years. An absolute fixture in the community, Tate has composed several books chronicling the history of Illinois sports, and even has a street in the city of Champaign named in his honor.
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