Both Rivals and Scout ranked Illinois' 2011 class eighth in the Big Ten. That's a long way from the early days of Ron Zook's tenure in Champaign, when he was pulling in nationally ranked classes based on nothing but promise.
Did Mike Locksley take Zook's recruiting thunder with him to New Mexico? Is it just a matter of the reality of Zook's coaching record catching up with him?
I don't have the answers, but keep in mind that Zook compiled his conference-worst record with multiple top-25 classes. Most of the players from those classes are gone. Now, he has to win with coaching.
Nonetheless, there are still some potential impact freshmen in this class.
One of the more intriguing prospects is Jon Davis. Rivals lists him as an athlete, while Scout lists him as the No. 7 tight end in the country. He already has the size to play at the college level, though his technique, particularly as a blocker, reputedly leaves something to be desired.
If he does land on the offense, he could be the No. 2 tight end from the get-go. If he lands on the defense, he could make a splash on the depth chart as a backup bandit.
Punter Justin DuVernois will have the inside track as the starting punter, as collegiate teams don't bring in scholarship kickers to have them sitting on the bench. Needless to say, he'll have a big pair of shoes to fill and will have to learn on the fly.
Finally, Dondi Kirby is a highly recruited safety/wide receiver out of Pennsylvania. His offer list reads like a who's who of college football, and it includes such teams as Ohio State, Michigan, Florida and Southern Cal. So who knows? Maybe the Zooker does still have it.
Kirby could wind up at safety or receiver. Though his upside is probably higher on defense, the Illini's depth in the secondary could determine his fate.
Given Illinois' lack of experience at pass catcher, he could come in and make an immediate name for himself on the two-deep as a wide receiver.
The Illini are depending on a number of players with no substantial experience behind them.
This begins with the quarterback. There is Nathan Scheelhaase. Behind him are a lot of unproven, inexperienced players. If it wasn't enough that so much of the offense rests on the shoulders of the third-year sophomore, pretty much all of the backup O-linemen are redshirt freshmen or, at best, sophomores that haven't played a snap yet. Then there are the receivers. A lot of bodies, but outside of A.J. Jenkins, there is no proven depth.
On defense, almost all of the linebackers on the two-deep are redshirt freshmen. The inside of the defensive line doesn't look much better.
In short, can this group that only lost 10 starts to injury last year (second-best in the Big Ten after Michigan State) withstand any attrition?
Then there is what the Illini present in comparison to last year. In 2010, Illinois went 6-6 in the regular season. That team had a better running back group, better receiving group, slightly better offensive line (though this year's O-line might be better by the end of the season), much better defensive line and linebackers and an all-conference punter.
This year's team has a better (i.e. an improved) quarterback and secondary, but can that make up for all this team lost in terms of quality? Again, last year's team only went 6-6 with a schedule that missed seven-win Iowa and 11-win Wisconsin.
On the bright side, last year's six-win team was exactly eight points away from being 9-3. Can this year's Illini win those close ones?
Sept. 3: Arkansas State. Illinois is the heavy favorite.
Sept. 10: South Dakota State (FCS). Heavy favorite.
Sept. 17: Arizona State. Will be a toss-up at game time, but I think Illinois should be a heavy underdog.
Sept. 24: Western Michigan. Illinois is the favorite.
Oct. 1: Northwestern. Slight favorite.
Oct. 8: At Indiana. Favorite.
Oct. 15: Ohio State. Underdog.
Oct. 22: At Purdue. Favorite.
Oct. 29: At Penn State. Underdog.
Nov. 5: Open
Nov. 12: Michigan. Underdog.
Nov. 19: Wisconsin. Underdog.
Nov. 26: At Minnesota. Favorite.
The Illini blow through the out-of-conference. Three of those wins wouldn't be surprising, but ASU is a dark horse Top-15 team next season, as it returns just about everybody from a team much better than its 6-6 record.
If Illinois wins that game, it will be a statement win.
Heading into the conference slate, the Illini handily beat Northwestern and kick the tar out of Indiana, thereby obtaining bowl eligibility and a 6-0 record (which would assure an appearance in the Top 25).
Between OSU, PSU, Michigan and Wisconsin, they go 2-2. They also beat Purdue and Minnesota.
That puts them at 10-2. It is not good enough to win the Leaders division, nor is it good enough to secure them a BCS bowl, as Illini fans don't have the traveling reputation of schools like Wisconsin or Iowa.
Nevertheless, it is good enough to earn them a bid to the Cap One Bowl and to keep Ron Zook safely in Champaign.
Illinois pounds its first two opponents before the Sun Devils come to town and take out the Illini by three scores. A lot of people write this down as an Illini letdown rather than a sign of how good ASU is.
They come back and beat Western Michigan, but they lose a close one to Northwestern. After beating Indiana, they hope to catch a still potentially rusty Ohio State. They don't.
They go on to lose four of their remaining five and finish at 5-7.
No bowl and goodbye Ron Zook.
In early January, before the departures of Corey Liuget, Martez Wilson and Mikel Leshoure, I predicted the Illini would win their division outright. That was even before the Ohio State situation exploded. I would still stand by that prediction if those three had stayed.
There are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Illinois in 2011.
Man for man, with this schedule, the Illini realistically have what it takes to win nine or 10 games. They have a good young quarterback, decent experience on the O-line and a strong, opportunistic secondary. Though there are some substantial holes—receivers, the defensive front seven, punter—their strengths and the softest conference schedule in the Big Ten should help minimize those issues.
The problem is Ron Zook. I just don't think the guy is a good coach. I haven't thought he was a good coach since the 2004 Outback Bowl, when his Gators lost to Iowa. Since then, he's done very little to change my opinion.
For me, the question is are Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning good enough to overcome Zook's deficiencies? On a certain level, they might be, but for me it is a dysfunctional team when the coordinators overshadow the head coach.
I have Illinois going 5-7, with wins over Arkansas State, South Dakota State and Western Michigan out of conference. In conference, I have them beating Northwestern and Indiana.
I wouldn't be entirely surprised if they pull off eight or more wins, but I can't imagine the day will ever come when I would bet on Ron Zook. If he does fulfill my prediction, then I won't have another opportunity to bet on him—at least not while he's at Illinois.
As it stands, this is an eight-win team that I am downgrading due strictly to what I feel is the coach's ineptitude.
Be sure to check out past installments of Big Ten Breakdown, beginning with the most recent, the Purdue Boilermakers.