With the College Football season now less than 30 days away from getting started, GDB's resident expert Young Swole will begin unleashing his preseason top 25. Today we look at the Illinois Fighting Illini
Last year, the Illini were the revelation of the Big 10. By taking a bunch of young kids with SEC-caliber speed and combining them with all-world running back Rashad Mendenhall, the Illini ran all the way past the rest of the plodding Big 10 into the Rose Bowl. With so much young talent being brought in thanks to Ron Zook (who recruits like Michael and coaches like Tito), there is hope that the Illinois will become one of the premier programs in the Big 10. How does this year's version stack up with last years, lets take a look and find out.
Offense: No player meant more to their team than Mendenhall was to the Illini last year. His exceptional talent made up for the fact that quarterback Juice Williams struggled to throw the ball accurately to anyone on the team. But now with Mendenhall in the Steel City, Juice is going to have to be reliable for the Illini, because no one knows who is going to be starting behind him at running back. Thankfully for Williams he will be throwing to quite possibly the best wide reciever in the conference in Arrelious Benn. This sophomore came out guns blazing last year and could be virtually uncoverable this year, if only Juice can get him the ball consistently.
Defense: The Illini also lost their leader on defense, when linebacker J Leman graduated this spring. However, there is a lot of talent left over to compensate. Cornerback Vontae Davis should be first-team Big 10 along with Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins, and people are saying that Martez Wilson has the chance to be the best Illini defender since Simeon Rice was roaming the sidelines at Player U. Furthermore, Zook has taken the SEC philosophy of stockpiling defensive linemen with him to Champaign and while many of his d-linemen are young, they have the talent to dominate. The D will have to step up this year, especially early because its likely the offense is going to be lagging behind while adjusting to life without Mendenhall.
Coaching: Other than Pete Carroll, there may be no better recruiter in college football than Ron Zook. He was the one who signed the players that led Florida to a national championship, and the fact that he can get top-notch prospects to a middle-of-the-road Big 10 team shows that wherever he goes, excellent players will follow. Unfortunately for Zook, recruiting coordinators don't win titles, head coaches do. Zook isn't exactly a mensa member when it comes to football strategy, and many of his teams have struggled from a lack of on-field discipline. This year will be a good test to see if he's learned anything since fleeing The Swamp, because his team is still very young and will need experienced guidance to lead them through a much tougher schedule then they faced last year.
Schedule and Predicted Outcomes:
Missouri - L
E. Illinois - W
La-Lafayette - W
@ Penn State - L
@ Michigan - L
Minnesota - W
Indiana - W
@ Wisconsin - L
Iowa - W
Western Michigan - W
Ohio State - W
@ Northwestern - W
I feel that Illinois is going to struggle out of the blocks but get much better as the young players gain experience over the course of the season. You may think Sweezy is drunk when you see that I picked them to beat Ohio State, but we all see how the Buckeyes struggle with fast and aggressive defenses, which is exactly what the Illini are going to have. The late season push and big win over OSU will launch Illinois towards a possible top-10 ranking in 2009, but they'll have to settle for no better than 8-4 in 2008