Breaking Down the Big Ten Part Two: The Illinois Fighting Illini

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Breaking Down the Big Ten Part Two: The Illinois Fighting Illini
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In 2008, Ron Zook did something that neither Jim Tressel nor Kirk Ferentz had done up until that time; he went to the Rose Bowl.

Yes, Tressel had taken his Bucks to four Fiesta Bowls and one Sugar Bowl including three National Championship games, and Kirk Ferentz's Hawks had been to the Orange Bowl. Furthermore, at 9-3, the Illini sort of found themselves in the Rose by virtue of the Big Ten-Pac Ten tie-in to which the Rose Bowl likes to remain loyal.

Nevertheless, in the Big Ten the Rose Bowl has special significance, and in 2008 the Fighting Illini had arrived in Pasadena.

They haven't been back since. In fact, they haven't been to any bowl before or since. Ron Zook's overall record in five years with Illinois is 21-39 (.350). When you take out the 9-3 2007 season, his record is 12-36 (.250).

The fact is Ron Zook still has his job for exactly two reasons: 2007 and the talent, and consequently, excitement he brought to the program due to the fact that he is a top-notch recruiter.

However, 2007 is long gone, and recruiting Zook-style, when you aren't with a blue chip program like OSU or Florida, is built on one thing—promise.

In 2005, Zook's first year with the Illini, they had nothing but promise, and that is exactly what Zook sold to recruits.

That promise netted him the fourth best recruiting class in the Big Ten in 2006. In 2007, he took in the 20th best class in the country. In 2008, he had the 19th best class .

However, with the Rose Bowl being far in the rear-view mirror, and Ron Zook's coaching record being the only thing he has to sell, his recruiting classes have begun to tank.

In 2010, Zook finds himself in the unfortunate position of being squarely on the hot seat in Champaign. He either delivers six wins and a bowl bid, or his tenure at the University of Illinois will be over.

 

The Offense

It would appear that Ron Zook is resting all of his hopes on Nathan Sheelhaase , a redshirt freshman quarterback out of Kansas City. That is probably for the best as Ron Zook's history developing quarterbacks is not all that spectacular.

While Zook was at Florida, Chris Leak floundered in inconsistent mediocrity. Conversely, in Leak's second year with Urban Meyer, he quarterbacked a National Championship team.

For the last four years, Juice Williams has, for the most part, been at the helm of the Illini, and he has been frustrating for Illinois fans to watch. Williams was athletically gifted, but he couldn't seem to improve his passing game.

Moreover, Zook has had the tendency to play musical chairs with his quarterbacks, which, in all probability, has done nothing to bolster their confidence. Last season Zook started three quarterbacks: Williams, junior Eddie McGee, and freshman Jacob Charest.

The fact is, under Zook, an unpolished, but very athletic quarterback might have the best chance of success. Is such a quarterback going to beat upper-tier defenses like Penn State and Ohio State? No, but his raw athleticism might be enough to scratch out wins against Purdue and Minnesota.

With all of that in mind, you can expect Illinois to rely very heavily on the running game, which was one of the few bright spots last season.

Including Sheelhaase, Illinois will have a three headed rushing attack, as Zook will play both Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure, both of whom are juniors-to-be.

Both backs had over 500 yards and averaged over six yards per carry last season.

Illinois will have to replace two multi-year starters on the line in Jon Asamoah and Eric Block. However, their other three starters will be returning.

Meanwhile, the receiving corps will be somewhat depleted thereby giving the passing game another hit. Arrelious Benn and Chris Duvalt have both moved on; Benn having moved on with some none-too-gracious things to say about his former team.

Nevertheless, the cupboard isn't quite bare as talented Florida transfer Jarred Fayson will probably be the Illini's No.1 receiver.

Regardless, the reality is, with or without experienced receivers, if the Illinois offense is going to be successful next year, they are going to do it on the ground.

 

Defense

Here, it is hard to say how many players the Illini return as they juggled their starters so often. The only two players that started all 12 games last season were linemen Doug Pilcher and Josh Brent.

Pilcher has graduated. Brent has one year of eligibility remaining, but has decided to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL via the supplementary draft.

In effect, there appears to be plenty of experience on the defense, but is that a good thing?

The Illini ranked dead last in the Big Ten in total defense, letting up over 400 yards and 30 points per game. Of course, much of this was due to a lack of continuity as well as inexperience.

Ultimately, I do expect Illinois to have a better defense in 2010. How much better remains in question.

Particularly notable will be Terry Hawthorne, a true freshman cornerback who really came on at the end of the season, and wound up starting the final three games.

Also, every linebacker that started a game last year—and there were five of them—will return as will most of the players that started games in the secondary.

The question is whether Ron Zook, who was a defensive coordinator under Steve Spurrier, will be able to coach up his players?

 

The Schedule

Illinois starts their season in St. Louis playing against a probable Top 25 team in Missouri. They then come back home to play Southern Illinois followed by Northern Illlinois, after which is a bye week before the Big Ten season.

I don't see them beating Mizzou, but I don't think it is an impossibility. They should beat the directional Illinois teams.

Unfortunately for the Illini, they begin the Big Ten schedule with a bang: OSU, @PSU, @MSU, Indiana, Purdue, @Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern (this game will be played at Wrigley Field), a bye week, then a road trip to Fresno State.

Illinois is fortunate enough to miss both Iowa and Wisconsin, both of whom will be rightfully ranked in the Top 15 to begin next season.

They are unfortunate that their young quarterback will begin his Big Ten career against arguably three of the top four defenses (with the other being Iowa) in the Big Ten next season.

I really doubt Illinois will be able to pull any of those games out. However, if they can weather the storm, all of their remaining games are winnable. Nevertheless, the question remains whether the Illini can win those final six games.

The fact is, under Ron Zook, the Illini are and have been capable of pulling some substantial upsets . They have also been capable of losing games they had no business losing.

In short, Ron Zook's Illini can conceivably beat or lose to any team on their schedule.

Nevertheless, I see them either splitting their out-of-conference or going 3-1. I don't see them beating Mizzou and Fresno State is iffy.

As I said, in the Big Ten, they will lose their first three games. I also think they will lose to Michigan. Thus, the other four games will ultimately determine just how successful they will be.

 

Intangibles

Ron Zook . The man is a walking intangible. He is bowl-less at Illinois, short of one year, and that year he went to the Grand Daddy of all bowls, the Rose Bowl.

His team—while he was at Florida— beat the eventual National Champion on the road and the next year, they lost to a terrible Mississippi State team.

In 2009, Illinois finished seventh in the conference in turnover margin at -.33, which, according to the Phil Steele model , means there shouldn't be any major swing their way in terms of an occasionally lucky bouncing ball.

Other than that, the biggest intangible is how will probable early season losses and mistakes affect the confidence of young Nathan Sheelchaase. It is asking a lot, but in many ways, this season, and Ron Zook's future, weigh on his shoulders.

If he, and the Illini, can overcome early season adversity and use it as a vehicle for growth, Illlinois could have a fairly successful season.

 

Worst Case Scenario

Sheelhaase really struggles to get it together, and makes a lot of rookie mistakes that cost the Illini immensely. They lose four of their first six, get manhandled against OSU and at Penn State, and are absolutely shell shocked heading home to play Indiana.

They lose to the Hoosiers, and while they pull it together enough to win two more games over the course of the season, that is not enough to get them six wins.

Zook is fired on December 4, the day after Illinois' final game, and a new coach is hired at the start of the new year.

 

Best Case Scenario

Illinois begins the season going 2-4, but Sheelhaase and the Illini offense show signs of growth and resiliency. They lose to the Spartans in their sixth game, but it is a close game, and Illinois is never out of it.

They head home and beat both Indiana and Purdue, leaving them with a .500 record.

On the road they lose to Michigan in a dogfight, but they finish strong, winning their final three games, including a close win against in-state rival Northwestern, and a surprisingly solid win on the road over always-competitive Fresno State.

They receive an invite to the Texas Bowl where they play and beat a lesser tier Big 12 team, earning Ron Zook the first bowl win in his career.

Final record: 8-5. Ron Zook solidifies his position in Champaign for at least another year.

 

My Prediction

Ron Zook, like Minnesota's Tim Brewster and Michigan's Rich Rodriguez, finds himself on the hot seat this season. Unlike Brewster and Rodriguez, he is on the hot seat facing down a fairly agreeable Big Ten schedule.

Zook can get this team to a respectable seven wins and a bowl bid. There is enough talent on this team and there are plenty of winnable games.

As I said, it all comes down to how well Sheelhaase and the Illini react to probable early season adversity.

Because I am of the belief that a team's reaction to adversity is a direct reflection of their coach, and because I don't think very highly of Ron Zook, I think Illinois will fall apart.

Zook, who knows his job is on the line, will start to get desperate and overly creative following the early season losses (see 2009). He will bench players that shouldn't be benched, and juggle the lineup where no juggling is needed.

If the Illinois schedule were reversed—if the Illini began the Big Ten season playing at Michigan, Minnesota, and Northwestern—I think that could change the complexion of the season considerably. Nonetheless, that is not the way the cards have fallen.

In the end, I have the Fighting Zookers beating the directional Illinois teams, Minnesota, and Purdue. Moreover, I'll go against the odds and say the Illini go into Fresno State and win one for the Zooker, but to no avail.

Final Record: 5-7. Goodbye Ron Zook.

 

Breaking Down the Big Ten Part One: The Minnesota Golden Gophers

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