College Football 2011: 11 Reasons Illinois Football Makes 2nd Straight Bowl Game
The Illinois Fighting Illini were a pleasant surprise in 2010, finishing over .500 and earning a bid to the Texas Bowl where they whooped up on Baylor. Coach Ron Zook has been criticized a great deal, but 2010 may have earned Zook a few more years at the helm of the Fighting Illini.
In came new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. Petrino implemented a pistol attack that caught the Big Ten by surprise and was extremely effective.
Illinois' approach on both sides of the ball was much better in 2010, and they will build upon the confidence the team gained and be even better in 2011.
Here are 11 reasons why the Illinois Fighting Illini make a second straight bowl game.
1. Cupcake Schedule Early
In college football, if you win seven games you are almost assuredly headed to a bowl game. The Illinois Fighting Illini will be favored heavily in their first six games and they should be able to run the table.
Going undefeated for the first half of the season will provide the Illini with a ton of confidence headed into their brutal stretch of games beginning Oct. 15 against Ohio State. If the Illini can stay healthy, they will make a bowl game in 2011.
They are far more talented than any team that they play in the early going. Arkansas State, South Dakota State, Arizona State, Western Michigan, Northwestern and Indiana will have Ron Zook feeling mighty secure with his job after the first six games.
2. Tougest Games in Champaign
The Illinois Fighting Illini face Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan and Wisconsin at home in 2011. The friendly confines of Champaign, Illinois will be a huge boost to the Illini and they should be able to take one of those games due to the home-field advantage.
It's incredible that the toughest game the Illini will potentially face on the road will be against the Penn State Nittany Lions, whom Illinois handled in 2010 33-13.
The schedule is very favorable for Illini Nation.
3. Nathan Scheelhaase Is a Dual-Threat
Nathan Scheelhaase threw for 17 TDs and only eight INTs in 2010 while completing nearly 60 percent of his passes. He also added another five TDs on the ground and racked up over 860 rushing yards during his first season at the helm of the Fighting Illini pistol attack.
The 6'3" 195-lb sophomore from Kansas City will be more familiar with the offense in 2011 and will be relied on more heavily with the departure of Mikel Leshoure to the NFL draft.
The Fighting Illini's offense is in good hands with Nathan Scheelhaase.
The Illinois Fighting Illini were able to take the majority of their opponents in the early going relatively by surprise with their new offense. Their pistol attack could not be scouted with the fervor that many defensive coordinators in college would have liked.
By the end of the 2010 season, the offense became very inconsistent and it seemed like defenses finally figured out how to attack this offense. Ron Zook and his staff have had the entire offseason to watch film on their opposition and make adjustments accordingly.
5. Pound the Ball Big Ten-Style
Mikel Leshoure's 1,697 yards and 17 TDs will not be replaced by one player for the Illinois Fighting Illini. They will use different running backs that feature different skill sets in 2011.
Jason Ford saw limited playing time in 2010, but he will provide the Illini with a bruising presence in the backfield that can get the tough yards. Troy Pollard and his 4.5 yards per carry is another option that can be trusted for Illinois.
Look for youngster Bud Golden to emerge as a home-run threat in 2011. The Fighting Illini were 11th in the country in rushing yards in 2010 after averaging 246.1 yards per game.
They showed that they can pound the ball with the big boys from the Big Ten and they will do so again in 2011.
6. Chemistry on the Outside
Wide receiver Jarred Fayson may be gone, but the Illinois Fighting Illini return Nathan Scheelhaase's favorite target, A.J. Jenkins, in 2011.
Jenkins was one of the more frequently targeted receivers in the country in 2010 with Scheelhaase throwing to him over 30 percent of the time. Jenkins posted solid numbers evidenced by his 56 receptions for 746 yards and seven TDs.
Jenkins is a legitimate deep-ball threat who averaged over 13 yards per catch last season. Look for the QB-WR duo to be even better in 2011.
7. Defense Wins
How many people expected the Illinois Fighting Illini's defense to be so dominant in 2010? Anyone?
Well it might not be fair to expect the same production from a group that lost first-round talent Corey Liuget to the NFL and starting middle linebacker Martez Wilson.
The Fighting Illini were absolutely terrific against the run and solid against the pass in 2010, but they did have games where they seemed utterly confused. Then again, Denard Robinson of Michigan made a lot of defenders look silly in 2010.
Craig Wilson will step in and replace Liuget and the big man will be more than capable of plugging holes just like Liuget did. If the Illini can get more pressure off the edge this season, they could potentially have a dominating defense.
8. Secondary Is in Good Hands
The Illinois Fighting Illini will potentially have one of the conference's best secondaries in 2011. Tavon Williams is a flat-out playmaker that looks to move back to cornerback in 2011. This will provide more depth to the defense and improve their coverage ability.
Justin Green and Terry Hawthorne both gained a lot of experience in 2010 and are both back at cornerback as well. Trulon Henry is back amongst the safeties and looks to improve upon his three INTs from last season.
If Supo Sanni can return to the form he displayed before being injured last summer, the secondary for the Illini could be one of the best the team has ever had.
9. Vic Koenning Was the Right Choice
Vic Koenning looked like an absolute genius after the way he turned around the Illinois Fighting Illini defense in 2010. Illinois had an atrocious defense in 2009 and was ranked 93rd overall.
In Koennig's first season as defensive coordinator, the Fighting Illini defense improved to 17th in the country last season. That is an astounding turnaround.
Look for Koenning to be even more aggressive this season with an experienced secondary to help compensate for a weaker front seven.
10. Zook Has Turned the Corner
The former coach from the University of Florida showed in 2010 that he may finally have figured out how to make the Illinois Fighting Illini relevant again. His coaching staff was dismantled and the moves surprisingly paid off with flying colors.
The coaching changes made at Illinois allowed for the team to be in almost every game and win convincingly in their bowl game. Look for Coach Zook and his team to take another step towards Big Ten conference supremacy in 2011.
11. Been There, Done That
The Illinois Fighting Illini blasted the Baylor Bears in the Texas Bowl in 2010 and will be even hungrier for a better bowl this season. They have a dual-threat quarterback that will be even better in 2011 and a defense that returns a load of talent.
The coaching staff has been overhauled and the moves paid immediate dividends in 2010. The Fighting Illini will make their second consecutive bowl in 2011.