Head Coach: Ron Zook (7th season)
Stadium: Memorial Stadium (62,870)
2010 Record: 7-6 (4-4)
Illinois football website
Heading into the 2010 season, many outsiders thought it would be Ron Zook’s final season at Illinois. Illinois was coming off of a 3-9 record in the 2009 season, there second consecutive season not making a bowl game. But Zook was able to prolong his tenure at Illinois by leading the Illini to a four win Big Ten season and a Texas Bowl victory of Baylor. In 2011 the Illini return 14 starters, including seven on offense, six on defense, and one on special teams. Last season Illinois was a very inconsistent team, never winning or loosing more than two games in a row. Three of Illinois’ six losses were by four points or less and only one loss was by more than 11 points. Seeing that Illinois was competitive in most games last season is a great sign for Illinois and their fans in the 2011 season. Lots of times a team that had several close losses the year before will be able to win those close games the following year. Those swing games are important for Illinois in 2011 if they want to contend for the first Big Ten Leaders division title.
Top Three players
- Derek Dimke
- Jeff Allen
- Nathan Scheelhasse
Normally having a kicker as one of your top players may be a bad thing, but not with Derek Dimke. The senior was a semi-finalist for the Lou Groza Award in 2010, and is on the Groza Award watch list for 2011. Jeff Allen has started on the line for the last three seasons, being named an All Big Ten performer in 2010. Nathan Scheelhasse had a solid freshman campaign, and was named a fourth team Freshman All-American in 2010. Scheelhasse won’t be one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten in 2011, but if he continually improves he can be a top Big Ten quarterback before he graduates.
All of these guys left Illinois for the NFL before their senior season. That has to make Illinois fans play the coulda, woulda, shoulda game for the 2011 season, especially with Illinois playing in a fairly wide open Leaders Division. Leshoure was a first team Big Ten running back while Wilson and Liuget were on the second team last season. Leshoure broke several Illinois single season records, including rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and 100 yard rushing games.
9/3: Arkansas State
9/10: South Dakota State
9/17: Arizona State
9/24: Western Michigan
10/8: @ Indiana
10/15: Ohio State
10/29: @Penn State
Easiest Game: South Dakota State
Hardest Game: Wisconsin
Must win game: @ Penn State
The schedule is fairly favorable for Illinois. The Illini open with five straight home games, and have a total of eight home games. Three of the four road games are against Big Ten teams who did not qualify for a bowl game in 2010. Illinois has a realistic chance of heading into November with one or two conference losses, which would put them in the middle of the Leaders Division race with a late season game against Leaders preseason favorite Wisconsin. Illinois has arguably the easiest conference schedule in the Big Ten, and has a great chance to make 2011 a very successful season because of it.
If Leshoure, Wilson, and Liuget would not have left for the NFL, I would pick Illinois to finish in the top two of the Leaders Division. But that isn’t the case, and even with the easy schedule I don’t think Illinois will be pushing for a division title by the time Wisconsin rolls into town. The Illini will finish in the middle of the division, battling for third place with Penn State. But if you are looking to pick a long shot to win the conference, I think Illinois would be a smart pick as they have the schedule to allow for it to happen. They are only an upset or two away from heading to the inaugural Big Ten Championship game.
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