Pre-Season Countdown: #7

So let’s recap the list of opponents from the easiest game (#12) to the the most difficult (#1):

#12  Indiana State University
#11  Eastern Michigan University
#10  Temple
#9  Indiana
#8  Purdue

Which brings us to #7 . . .

ILLINOIS.

Why do I put the Illini here?  Why not?  There are far more important and philosophical questions to ask before this season starts. 

Basically, I don’t see Illinois being a more formidable foe than Iowa, Alabama, Ohio State, Nebraska, or Wisconsin.  The only other team to be ranked yet is Northwestern, and quite frankly, that game is on the road and I fear Pat Fitzgerald more than Ron Zook.  And perhaps that, in the end, is the reason that Northwestern went higher in the draft than Illinois.

In looking at this Illinois team–if you read about what is being written–you wonder why they haven’t already been named Big Ten champs.  Their schedule is favorable, albeit with a September 17th home game against Arizona State.  The Illini should be able to win OOC games against Arkansas State, South Dakota State, and Western Michigan.  They open the Big Ten with their fifth consecutive home game against Northwestern.  Won’t I look like an idiot if they win that game?  Well, I already look like one, so it’s a moot point anyway.

Last season, Zook replaced both his offensive and defensive coordinators.  Fortunately for PSU fans, neither of those gentlemen were named Larry Johnson, Sr.  But despite that, Illinois fielded an offense that set a program record 32.5 points per game.  RB Leshoure set a school record with 1,697 yards.  Of course, he is gone in the NFL draft along with Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson on defense.

The Illini went 7-6 with a bowl victory over Baylor.  They return 14 starters.  Ron Zook is known for recruiting.

But Zook is not known for winning.  At Illinois for 6 years, the team has not gone to consecutive bowl games since 1992.  Consistency, thy name is not Illinois.  So if you’re a gambling man, this is a year NOT to make a bowl game.

Yet, there is a strange sense of optimism in Illini country.

Kevin Elliot of ChiCitySports writes:

You won’t hear me say this often, and I may regret it soon, but here it goes: I’m excited for the 2011 Illini football season to commence.

Hope has taken residence in Champaign-Urbana, a cautiously optimistic vibe coursing through the streets. And perhaps I’m crazy to admit this, but there are legitimate reasons to believe the Illini could put together a successful 2011 campaign.

Reason #1: Schedule.

Goodbye, Missouri. Hello, Arkansas State.

Reason #2: Talent.

While Mikel LeShoure, Corey Liuget, and Martez Wilson will be missed, the Illini return 15 starters, including starting QB Nathan Scheelhaase and leading receiver A.J. Jenkins.It remains to be seen whether RB Jason Ford can emerge from his backup role and become a consistent workhorse, but he will be helped by an experienced offensive line, a group Zook has specifically mentioned as being a major strength. The defense has lost some key pieces, but the Illini will look to Senior LB Ian Thomas, CB Terry Hawthorne, and DL Akeem Spence to be significant contributors.

Reason #3: Coordinators

The hiring of Paul Petrino to run the offense and Vic Koenning to run the defense paid big dividends last season.

But in the end, this is still a Ron Zook team in a tough league and even though Illinois smacked us in the mouth last year, they are still–in the end–just Illinois, a big block I with no mascot. 

Penn State will play Illinois before facing Nebraska–but we will have a bye week before that juggernaut game, so it’s not likely we will be looking ahead.  Illinois is the third triumvirate of swing games–games which PSU should win but you never know for sure–that includes sequentially Purdue, Northwestern and Illinois.  This is October in Penn State football, along with an opening game against the Hoosiers.

Prediction:  I may be drinking the Kool Aid here, but I do think we will be improved from last season.  I am not as optimistic for Illinois as their fans may be.  I call this a close win by Penn State, maybe one of those where we kick a field goal late in the game and hope that Illinois doesn’t pull a 1999 Minnesota or a 2005 THEM miracle out in the end.

I haven’t posted a final season prediction, but I’m leaning towards 8-4.  I could be talked into 10-2.  Either way, I think Penn State needs to win this game to achieve that level of success.  A loss to Illinois means 6-6 or 7-5.  There’s too many Big Ten teams better than the Illini, so if we can’t get past this game, then another outcome like last year is likely (7-6 overall.)

DO, OR DO NOT.  THERE IS NO TRY.

You’re right, Yoda.  Penn State wins this game!

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Filed under analysis, Big Ten, football, Illinois, Penn State, Pre-season, prediction

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