College Football: Illinois Game-by-Game 2011 Season Preview
This season, Illinois is coming off a Texas Bowl win over Baylor, marking Illinois' first bowl win since 1999! Illinois has high expectations for the 2011 season even with the losses of star running back Mikel Leshoure, defensive lineman Corey Liuget and linebacker Martez Wilson to the NFL.
Illinois looks to build on a record-setting offense, and with the growth of redshirt sophomore Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois could win a lot of games this year.
Game 1: Illinois vs. Arkansas State
Illinois opens its season of eight home games and four road games at home against Arkansas State. Arkansas State is out of the Sun Belt Conference, where it went 4-8 overall last season, including 4-4 in-conference.
Arkansas State returns all the top players on the offensive side of the ball, but that will not matter, as the Illinois offense will be too much for its defense.
Furthermore, even with the losses of Martez Wilson and Corey Liuget, the team's defense should have no problems against Arkansas State. Illinois will start the season 1-0 for the first time since 2006.
Game 2: Illinois vs. South Dakota State
In Game 2, Illinois plays at home against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits out of the MVC. South Dakota State went 5-6 last year and 4-4 in conference play.
This should be another easy win for the Illini, who will go in as heavy favorites. This is the type of game in which one might expect Illinois to sub in its backups during the fourth quarter. With this win, Illinois would be 2-0 for the first time since 2005, when it finished the season 2-9.
Game 3: Illinois vs. Arizona State
This, by far, will be Illinois' toughest non-conference game, as Arizona State returns all of its key starters from a team that went 6-6 last season, including 4-5 in the Pac-10.
As this game is being played at home, I think that Illinois may be the slight favorite for the Saturday night game. The Illinois offense and defense will need to play their best to defeat Arizona State, but I predict that Illinois holds on and wins a close one. Illinois is 3-0 and ranked in the Top 25.
Game 4: Illinois vs. Western Michigan
After a tough home game against Arizona State, Illinois enters the fourth game of the season ranked in the Top 25 and playing Western Michigan (6-6, 5-3 MAC) at home.
Western Michigan returns both its quarterback and running back, but it lost its top two wide receivers, who combined for over 2,400 yards receiving.
MAC opponents can be tough to play against, but being ranked and coming off a big win over ASU, Illinois will be fired up and should have no problems beating Western Michigan. With the win, Illinois would be 4-0 heading into conference play and ranked in the Top 20.
Game 5: Illinois vs. Northwestern
In last year's game at Wrigley Field, the Illinois offense ran all over the Northwestern defense—especially running back Mikel Leshoure, who ran for 330 yards.
One plus for Northwestern, in addition to Illinois' loss of Leshoure to the NFL, is that quarterback Dan Persa will be back with the team.
Despite losing Leshoure, playing this game in front of a sold-out crowd at Memorial Stadium, the Illinois offense will roll, and Illinois will be 5-0 for the first time since 1951, when head coach Ray Elliot led the team to a 9-0-1 record and a Rose Bowl win over Stanford.
Game 6: Illinois at Indiana
Following big wins over Arizona State and Northwestern, the ranked Illini head into Bloomington to take on an Indiana team that will have a new quarterback and running back and will continue to struggle.
Thus, Illinois, in its first road game of the season, manhandles the Hoosiers and starts the season 6-0. The team would be ranked in the Top 15 heading into a home game against Ohio State.
Game 7: Illinois vs. Ohio State
Before all the turmoil at Ohio State, this game looked like it was going to be one of the bigger games on the B1G schedule. Even though Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressel are gone from Ohio State, this is still going to be a big game for the Illini.
Last season, the Illini nearly beat Ohio State. As this will be a home game, I would not be surprised to see Illinois beat Ohio State and get to 7-0, possibly cracking the Top 10 in the rankings!
Game 8: Illinois at Purdue
Illinois is 7-0 and is hovering around the Top 10 in the rankings as it heads to Indiana to play Purdue. Last season, Illinois destroyed Purdue 44-10, and don't expect to see much difference this year, as Purdue will be right there with Indiana at the bottom of the Big Ten Conference.
With a win at Purdue, Illinois would be 8-0 and more than likely ranked in the Top 10 in college football.
Game 9: Illinois at Penn State
This will be Illinois' toughest road game. Last season Illinois went into Happy Valley and beat Penn State at home for the first time ever, 33-13. Penn State has talent, but its biggest question mark is at the QB position.
If the Nittany Lions don't have that figured out this late in the season, expect Illinois to win its second straight game at Penn State and get to 9-0 on the season.
Game 10: Illinois vs. Michigan
Last season's triple-overtime 67-65 thriller was a huge loss for the Illini. The Illini will look to get revenge at home for last season's instant classic. With Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase's progress as a thrower, things will be much different for the Illini this time around.
Whereas the team depended heavily on the running game last season, it will have a more balanced attack on offense against a Michigan defense that isn't very good. Illinois starts the season 10-0.
Game 11: Illinois vs. Wisconsin
With only two games remaining on the schedule, Illinois is 10-0 and ranked somewhere in the Top 10. The Illini come home home for Game 11 against a 9-1 Wisconsin team whose only loss came to a newcomer to the Big Ten, Nebraska.
This is Illinois' toughest game of the season and likely the only game that it will lose. Wisconsin is now one of the top teams in the country. I don't expect this to be a blowout by any means. This game will come down to the wire, and Illinois does suffer its first loss of the season and falls to 10-1.
The Illini are still ranked in the Top 10 in the nation heading into the final game of the season at Minnesota.
Game 12: Illinois at Minnesota
Entering the final game of the regular season, the Illini are 10-1 with their only loss coming to Wisconsin. The Illini are ranked in the Top 10 and are poised for a big bowl game. They just need to finish up the regular season against a weak Minnesota team, to whom they lost last year at home.
The Illini are looking to avenge that loss this time and beat Minnesota at home. The Illini should take care of business and finish the season 11-1 before heading to a January 1st bowl game.