Ron Zook has plenty cheer about in Champaign this year
Every year there is at least one of them: a team that comes from major conference obscurity and finds itself in the thick of a conference championship and a BCS bowl.
It may be hard to remember or imagine that just three years ago, Georgia Tech played in the Orange Bowl (against Iowa), and that four years ago, Kansas and Illinois found themselves in major bowls.
Beating out the traditional powers of a conference is no easy task. It takes a unique combination of skill and luck to amass a strong enough record to attract the eyes of the BCS committee.
Every year, experts are on the hunt to find the year's sleeper, yet we are all ultimately surprised when it turns out to be the team that it is.
This article should serve as a forecast that one of the year's surprise teams will be the Illinois Fighting Illini. Surprised by this pick? Read on and see if you agree.
Chances are that you haven't heard of many of the players on the Illinois defense. They, along with defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, are just fine with that.
The truth is that the Illini defense is an impressive unit; one that forced three turnovers, six sacks and held the Sun Devils to 14 points last week.
There is talent on every level; Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan up front, Jonathan Brown (pictured) and senior leader Ian Thomas at linebacker. Terry Hawthorne, Tavon Wilson and Trulon Henry man the secondary.
Under Koenning, this complete Illini unit has given up an average of 10.6 points per game this season, and forced eight turnovers in three games.
Jason Ford leads the Illini rushing attack
Ask anyone and they will tell you that the ability to run the ball is integral to being successful in football. Illinois can do this as well as anyone.
The Illini rushing attack ranks 22nd nationally, and it really hasn't gotten going yet. The Illini have four rushers with over 100 yards already (Jason Ford: 192, Nathan Scheelhaase: 184, Troy Pollard: 127 and Donovonn Young: 112).
In all, the Illini average 223.7 yards per game, and 4.6 yards per carry.
If you don't think the ability to run the ball is important, just look back to the Illini's biggest win of all time, a 2007 upset over No. 1 Ohio State in the horseshoe where they was able to control the ball the entire fourth quarter.
It should be pointed out, of course, that no running game is complete without a solid offensive line. Illinois has one, led by Senior Tackle Jeff Allen. The entire offensive line, 6'5" or taller, and four of the five men are over 300 pounds or over.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase made a big splash on the scene last year as a true freshman, throwing for 1,825 yards and adding another 868 on the ground. By all accounts early on, Scheelhaase seems to be headed for an improvement this year.
He has developed into more of a passer than a runner. He already has 504 yards, 3 TDs and a completion percentage of 71.7 (compared to last year's 58.7). More importantly, he has only thrown one interception. Last year he threw eight.
This isn't to say that Ron Zook and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino have taken the running attack away from Scheelhaase entirely. He's still a threat to run but now he is more accurate with his passes.
And that is just fine with the Illini. No one is asking Scheelhaase to be Houston's Case Keenum when it comes to passing totals. No one is asking him to be Dernard Robinson of Michigan when it comes to rushing totals.
If Scheelhaase continues to complete passes, avoid turnovers and provide a running threat, the Illini will be in great shape.
The Illini have never been known to produce great receivers during their history. In the past decade, the Illini have given us Brandon Lloyd, Arrelious Benn and a lot of inconsistencies.
Many times a wide receiver of would break out for a 7 catch, 155 yard game with two touchdowns one week only to disappear and tally zero catches the next. This year, A.J. Jenkins is trying to put up statistics comparable to the aforementioned Lloyd and Benn.
He's off to a great start. He has 22 catches for 322 yards and two touchdowns in the three games. That puts him only seven yards behind Justin Blackmon, 39 yards behind Robert Woods and 75 yards behind Michael Floyd.
This isn't to say Jenkins is as good as those receivers, but it shows that he is putting up huge numbers for the Illini thus far. He's on his way to being an all-conference wide receiver and giving the Illini a vertical threat they so rarely have.
I hate to go there but with Illinois, the schedule bears mentioning. They are already 3-0. Their last non-conference game comes this week when they welcome Western Michigan to Champaign.
After that, Illinois avoids possibly the three toughest teams from the Legends division (Iowa, Michigan State and Nebraska). From their division, they get Ohio State and Wisconsin at home. They play four road games in total: Indiana, Purdue, Penn State and Minnesota.
Consider this, they are favored this week against WMU. They should be favored at home next week against Northwestern, then again at Indiana.
There is a chance they can be 6-0 headed into a home game against Ohio State. The way the Buckeyes have looked this year, and the fact that Illinois always plays OSU tough, means that Illinois could be 7-0.
After that, they can be favored in three of the remaining five games. If Illinois remains focused, wins the games they should and pulls one upset, you're looking at a 10 win team and a potential Big Ten champion.
So what does everyone think? Does Illinois have a legitimate shot to make the BCS? Or will they get lost in the shuffle of the Big Ten and settle for a lesser bowl. All comments are encouraged!