2010 record: 7-6 (4-4), beat Baylor in Texas Bowl
Coach: Ron Zook (7th season, 28-45)
Series: Illinois leads 44-21-2
Blogs: Hail to the Orange
IU's second Big Ten game, at home against Illinois, is one of the crucial games of the 2011 season. as I have said before, IU's Big Ten schedule sets up fairly well for bowl eligibility. Based on last year's Big Ten standings, IU plays its four toughest opponents on the road and its four easiest opponents at home. That is not to say that any of the Hoosiers' games will be easy. Penn State will be better than last season, and I think there is a good chance that Purdue, Illinois, and Northwestern will be as well. Nevertheless, IU plays road games at Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Iowa. Setting aside Penn State, I certainly like IU's chances in home games against Purdue, Illinois, and Northwestern than I would in hypothetical home games against any of IU's road opponents. This would be a murderous schedule for a team that hoped to contend for the conference title, but for a team hoping for six wins by any means necessary, it could be much worse.
Of course, "easy" is a relative term. The Hoosiers may well be underdogs in all Big Ten games. Absent a disaster against one of the three non-conference opponents from outside the major conferences, IU will be no worse than 3-2 entering the Illinois game. After Illinois, however, the schedule ramps significantly, and the Hoosiers play six of their final eight games on the road. Obviously, the difference between 4-2 and 3-3 is huge. If IU has at least four wins after playing Illinois, then IU could reach bowl eligibility without winning a Big Ten road game. If IU is 3-3 after playing Illinois, then not only would IU have to beat Purdue and Northwestern, but IU would have to win a road game in a very tough venue. Perhaps it is silly for me to be overanalyzing bowl prospects for a team with a first year coach and an undetermined first year quarterback, but in the era of 12-game schedules, and 6-6 bowl eligibility, anything is possible for any team in any season.
But back to the Illini. Last year, Illinois advanced to its second bowl game in Ron Zook's six year tenure, and their first since the out-of-nowhere Rose Bowl appearance following the 2007 season. Since 1997, the IU-Illinois series has been competitive and home team-dominated. Illinois has an 8-6 lead since then, but IU holds a 5-2 lead in games played in Bloomington. Illinois has a 6-1 lead in Champaign. The only wins by Illinois in Bloomington were by their two best teams of the post-Tepper era (chuckle): the aforementioned Rose Bowl team of 2007 and the 2001 Big Ten champions. In 2010, the Illini were pleasantly surprised by the play of redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback. The 2010 Illini played better defensively than offensively, but Scheelhaase was fairly proficient. He completed 58 percent of his passes, threw 17 TDs to 8 INTs, and ran for 688 yards and 5 touchdowns. One of the reasons Scheelhaase was able to succeed is because he was not asked to bear much of the offensive burden. He averaged only 140 passing yards per game, and the Illinois offense leaned heavily on Mikel LeShoure, who ran for 1688 yards and 17 touchdowns. LeShoure now is in the NFL, and that means that Scheelhaase is the Illini's returning leading rusher. Still, the cupboard is not bare. Illinois returns senior Jason Ford, who has been up and down for his career but has run for a total of 1338 yards and 19 touchdowns in his first three seasons. If his name is familiar to IU fans, that is because he played the best game of his career against IU as a freshman in 2008, when he ran for 172 yards and 3 touchdowns in that ugly, 55-13 night game loss in Champaign. Illinois returns leading receiver AJ Jenkins (788 yards, 7 touchdowns) as well as Ryan Lankford and tight end Evan Wilson.
The Illini ranked #45 nationally in total offense in 2010 (#11 in rushing offense and #111 in passing offense). The strong Illini defense ranked #38 in 2010, but faces some serious attrition. The Illini's top three leaders in tackles and sacks are gone, and the defensive line will be particularly green. Honorable mention Trulon Henry returns at safety. Akeem Spence seems to be the most highly regarded defensive lineman returning.
Illinois is a team that seems to be earning some positive coverage this preseason. Nevertheless, Illinois, during the Zook era and over the last couple of decades, has had difficulty capitalizing on its successes. Who would have predicted in 2007 that the three years following the Illini's Rose Bowl trip would include nothing better than a solitary trip to the Texas Bowl? IU certainly has no room to talk. Obviously, I would take the Illini's last decade (which includes only three bowl bids but two BCS bowls) over IU's. Still, it will be interesting to see what the Illini do in 2011. Both Ford and Scheelhaase will face increased burdens. The defense returns starters but loses most of its best players. Regardless, this will be a crucial game for IU, and the odds generally have been in favor of the home team. We will have a much better read on the Hoosiers' 2011 season after this game.