Monday, August 25, 2008

Welcome Back to Illinois Preview

I think that title pretty much sums up F&BT's thoughts on Illinois this year, and generally describes their Rose Bowl experience from last January. The beating from USC confirmed what most outside of Chambana already knew, that Illinois isn't there yet...but they're not far away. Well, they are this year, but they should be elite again next year. Why aren't they elite this year? Well I thought you'd never ask!

1) The Juice is loose...and that's not a good thing. Williams came in as an overhyped recruit and was instantly designated as the face of the program. Asked to do too much too early, he struggled his freshman year. The thing is...he struggled last year too, only the bar was set so low from his freshman year that people only saw the improvement. He flat out sucked in the Penn State game, and was benched in the second half. But I will give him some credit, he was a stud in the Ohio State game. Unless he becomes a consistent stud, expect the Illini to remain in the second tier of the Big Ten.

2) The schedule won't be so friendly to the Illini. Remember when Illinois was upsetting those teams last year out of nowhere? Well, a trip to the Rose Bowl and a couple upset wins will put you on someone's radar. Unfortunately for the Illini, two teams they upset at home last year, Penn State and Wisconsin, will be looking for retribution on a Jason Bourne level when the Illini come visiting in 2008. In case the Illini haven't heard, Happy Valley and Madison tend to be a little rowdy on gameday.

3) Key defensive losses. Make no mistake about it, Illinois lost three good players at three of the more important defensive positions. The two safeties not only serve as the last line of defense, but call all the coverage and formation audibles before the snap. Communication and cohesiveness are key, and the Illini's two veteran safeties from last year's team are being replaced by inexperienced youngsters. Similarly, J Leman called the defense last year, and pretty much made this team tick. Illini fans feel safe with Brit Miller stepping over into the Mike linebacker spot with his superior speed and veteran experience, but be careful Illini fans, J Leman played the Mike spot last year for a reason. He was good.

The news in Chambana isn't all bad this year however, as the Illini have just a few things going for them.

1) Rejus! Rejus! Rejus! Arrelious Benn is a friggin' stud, and you can't even argue otherwise. It's like watching Varsity Blues when he catches the ball. He'll catch the ball and people just start falling off him in way that makes you say, "Nope, that's not realistic...hollywood sucks at sports action scenes!" Except it's real...and it's Rejus Benn. Just ask Penn State.

2) Illinois is a physical football team. Lots of teams that switch to running a spread offense tend to lose sight of the concept that football is a physical game. It's almost as if some offenses think they're playing two-hand touch. Get the defense in space, and try not to let them touch you. Not Illinois. Illinois will try to trick you with some misdirection, and just when you turn your head back around...BAM! Run over by a Mack truck. Props to Ron Zook and Mike Locksley for keeping that physical edge built into this offense.

3) The gameday atmosphere is on the up-and-up. Excellent tailgating lots. A rejuvenated fan base. Renovated stadium. And something to actually cheer about. Yep, Illinois football Saturdays are moving up the list of Road Trips Worth Making.

So there you have thoughts on Illinois. Illinois' season will be like the career of Vince Vaughn...breakout with Swingers, make a bunch of crappy movies while learning how to act, and claim your spot in the upper echelon with a classic like Wedding Crashers. Unfortunately, Illinois is in the crappy movie part of that cycle. 2008 won't be able to match the drama and excitement of 2007 or Swingers, but Illini fans can rightly expect to go bowling again in '08...possibly even a January 1 bowl in Florida. But more realistically, 2008 will be a year of growing pains for a program that made a monumental leap out of the cellar in a one-year span. Back-to-back highly ranked recruiting classes has raised the talent level, but F&BT cautions Illini fans that faster and more athletic does not necessarily mean better. Until Illinois becomes less reliant on youth in the two-deep, they'll remain just under the elite level of the Big Televen. Don't be discouraged by 4 or 5 losses in 2008, this will be at team to reckon with in 2009.

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