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2010 NCAA Football Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

2009 Record: 3-9 (2-6 in Big Ten)
2009 Bowl: N/A
Final 2009 AP Ranking: Not Rated
Head Coach: Ron Zook (21-39 at Illinois; 44-53 All-Time)
Non-Conference Schedule: Missouri (9/4), Southern Illinois (9/11), Northern Illinois (9/18), at Fresno State (12/3)

2009 Offensive Statistics
Scoring: 24.2 points per game (8th in Big Ten)
Rushing Yards/Game: 200 (2nd in Big Ten, 17th in Nation)
Passing Yards/Game: 193 (10th in Big Ten)
Total Yards/Game: 393 (5th in Big Ten) 

2009 Defensive Statistics
Scoring: 30.2 points per game (last in Big Ten 96th in Nation)
Rushing Yards/Game: 154 (8th in Big Ten)
Passing Yards/Game: 248 (10th in Big Ten, 100th in Nation)
Total Yards/Game: 403 (last in Big Ten, 92nd in Nation)

2009 Misc Stats
Turnover Margin: -0.33 per game (8th in Big Ten)
Penalties: 61 yards per game (last in Big Ten, 94th in Nation)

Returning Starters
Offense: 5
Defense: 7
Kicker/Punter: 2

Top Returning Statistical Leaders
Passing: QB Jacob Charest, Soph (28 of 56 for 382 yds, 2 TD, 2 INT, 95 ypg)
Rushing: RB Mikel LeShoure, Jr (108 carries for 734 yds, 5 TD, 6.8 ypc, 66 ypg)
Receiving: WR Jarred Fayson, Sr (16 rec, 218 yds, 1 TD, 1.6 rec/game)
Tackles: LB Ian Thomas, Jr (95)
Sacks: DE Clay Nurse, Sr (5.5)
Interceptions: 4 tied with 1

2010 Pre-Season Rankings
Athlon Sports: #71
Sporting News: #94

2010 Pre-Season Big Ten Prediction:
Athlon Sports: #9
Phil Steele: #8

There is really no way to sugar coat it, Illinois simply wasn't very good last year. They only won 3 games and one of those was against Illinois State. At first look I would think they catch a break in not having to play Iowa or Wisconsin (two of the best 4 teams in the conference) but they didn't play either of those 2 teams last year either. Ron Zook has made changes in both coordinator positions for this season. He recognizes that his job is on the line and that he needs to get this team to win ball games. Illinois is not that far off from a talent perspective. We turned to Paul M. Banks of to answer our questions about Illinois football.

What are the major strengths and biggest weaknesses of the team?

The running game- that's about the only aspect of the team I'm optimistic about. Especially since 3/5 OL starters are back and RB Mikel LeShoure is the real deal. Jason Ford is a serviceable backup, sometimes. The front seven returns four starters, so there's some hope there. The secondary will be anybody's guess. It's a crap shoot. The passing game could be a mess, it was an absolute train wreck last year, and that was with an experienced QB and WRs. And with everyone EXTREMELY HIGH on the receiving corps entering the season. Maybe it's good we're starting over here, especially with a new off coordinator.

I'm very high on Petrino, maybe he'll improve the passing game from '09.

Looking at the schedule who will be the first major test?

Mizzou right off the bat in St. Louis, they've owned us lately and have a 16-7 edge in the all time series.

What team on the schedule do you fear the most?

My first three years on campus we went 5-28, so I've been conditioned to fear everyone. The Ron Zook era has done little to nothing to alleviate that fear.

Who is the best player on your team that nobody talks about?

Maybe D lineman Cory Liuget. pronounced "legit." Like Hammer "too legit to quit."

Who is the best offensive player on the team?

Leading rusher LeShoure- he averaged close to seven yards a carry on the season, and finally seized the starting tailback position all to himself when it was previously a wide open derby, exactly like Rashard Mendenhall did in 07

Who is the most impactful defensive player on the team?

D lineman Clay Nurse who was all conference honorable mention last year. He should find the opponent's backfield early and often this fall.

What player(s) needs to step up this year in order for the team to reach it's full capability?

That's 100% MLB Martez Wilson. Last summer, we were all talking about how he was moving over to the middle, and how the two guys that preceded him, Brit Miller, and J Leman led the conference in tackles. And it was his turn to finally live up to the huge billing that surrounded him as a recruit. He was right up there with Arrelious Benn and Vontae Davis. A fluke injury cut his 09 short, but now he has another year to step up

Who is the top offensive newcomer that can make an impact this year?

QB Nathan Scheelhaase. Has to be. Like Al Pacino said in "Any Given Sunday" "it's the top spot kid, you're the guy that has to lead, and take the fall." Here's why I think naming him the starter early is the way to go.

Who is the top defensive newcomer that can make an impact this year?

This answer will change numerous times between now and Camp Rantoul, and change many times again between Camp Rantoul and our inevitable 25+ pt loss on Sept 4th to Missouri.

The popular off-season topic is conference re-alignment and the Big Ten is at the forefront of the discussion. Who would you like to see added to the Big Ten (CFBZ note: This question was prior to Nebraska joining the Big Ten)?

Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Maryland, Syracuse, Cincinnati and UConn. You may be asking why all these teams? Well, I want every conference to do this. Because then and only then will we get closer to that long overdue playoff system. Here's my theory of how that can happen.

Ron Zook has one of the hottest seats right now in college football. What does he need to do to get this team to the next level and keep his job?

Not be college football's answer to Vinny Del Negro. The Zooker has an alphabet that lacks Xs and Os. As bad a coach as he has been, (and nothing short of 8-4 or better this fall will change that perception) his job is somewhat secure because the state is utterly broke and has no money to buy out his contract. As if the Zook contract extension decision wasn't bad enough, the University compounded their mistake by adding another year to his deal. Unless the boosters can somehow legally get a lot of money together, he's here till 2014. Despite the fact that the case for dismissing him is very strong right now.

Vic Koenning was brought in to improve a defense that was last in the Big Ten in points allowed and yards allowed. What is the buzz about him, do the fans think he will be able to get the job done?

In his four at years Clemson, the defense finished in the NCAA Top 25 in scoring, total, and pass efficiency defense each season. He also helped lead Troy’s defense to a No. 1 national ranking in interceptions (25), tied for second in turnovers forced (32), was ninth in fewest yards allowed per play, and finished 16th in total defense (311.0). So there's hope especially since he has 7/11 returning starters on his side of the ball. But then again this is Illinois, so the last thing you ever want to do is have high expectations.

Gut feeling on the teams final record at the end of the regular season and what makes this a successful season in your eyes?

A bowl berth/bowl win would be nice, as I'm really expecting some 3-9, maybe 4-8 to show up this fall. But 7-5 or better doesn't matter unless you can sustain it. My alma mater hasn't had back to back winning seasons since 91-92. Ron Turner had two fluke years. Zook has had one. This program can't excite anyone until they get 3 or more consecutive postseasons, like they had in the 80s.

Paul M. Banks is the President and CEO of The Sports , a Midwest focused webzine. He is also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, the Chicago Tribune’s blog network, Walter, the Washington, Yardbarker Network, and Fox

Previous Big TenPreviews
Michigan Wolverines,
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Northwestern Wildcats
Purdue Boilermakers

Next Up: Ohio State Buckeyes

2010 Previews
ACC- Boston College Eagles, Florida State Seminoles, Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, Maryland Terrapins
Big 12- Kansas State Wildcats, Missouri Tigers, Texas Tech Red Raiders
Big East- Cincinnati Bearcats, Pittsburgh Panthers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, USF Bulls, West Virginia Mountaineers
Conference USA- Houston CougarsTulane Green Wave, UTEP Miners
MAC- Ball State Cardinals, Bowling Green Falcons, Buffalo Bulls, Central Michigan Chippewas, Temple Owls, Toledo Rockets
MWC- Colorado State Rams, New Mexico Lobos, UNLV Rebels, Utah Utes
Pac-10- Arizona State Sun Devils, Oregon Ducks, USC Trojans, Washington Huskies
SEC- Auburn Tigers, Kentucky Wildcats, Mississippi Rebels, South Carolina Gamecocks, Vanderbilt Commodores
Sun Belt- Troy Trojans
WAC- New Mexico State Aggies

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