Illinois Illini Football Preview
Spring practices are in the books and fall camps will be here before you know it so that means getting an early jump on the 2006 NCAA football season. Knowing the teams now will save you time in August and Matt Fargo is here to help you get a grasp of what to expect this upcoming year. We go from worst to first in this 2006 College Football Preview.
Fargo’s Take All of the pieces are in place for a huge turnaround at Illinois but those pieces were so bad last year that it might take a minor miracle for that to happen. The Illini went winless in the Big Ten last season and none of those games were even close as the narrowest defeat was by 17 points on two different occasions. The offense should have been better than it was but a very weak offensive line led to numerous sacks and no running lanes. Even worse than the offense was the defense that allowed the most points in Big Ten history. Illinois allowed 39.5 ppg on the season, 43.9 ppg in conference action, and had the worst rushing defense in the entire country. Despite the return of 18 starters, it’s hard to be optimistic because not a whole lot has changed from last November to now. An easier schedule helps but it will take a lot more than that for the Illini to escape the Big Ten basement.
Returning Starters on Offense – 9 Illinois had seven starters coming back last year but it did little good as the offense averaged a mere 17 ppg, 107th in the nation. Now with nine starters back, there is hope for some improvement but it will all depend on the offensive line. There are five starters back from that line but two of them aren’t even going to start and only one player will be playing in the same position that he was in last season. Reshuffling is definitely a start but with everyone playing out of position, who knows how long it will take the unit to jell. Quarterback, running back and receiver all remain intact as well so if the line comes together quickly, good things can happen. Running backs Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey combine to form one of the best 1-2 combos in the entire conference.
Returning Starters on Defense – 9 The defense was able to stop only one team, San Jose St., last season and if there isn’t a major turnaround, it’s going to be another long year. The rushing defense allowed a whopping 234 ypg and 5.5 ypc, both dead last in the country. There is only one way to go and that is up and if spring was any indication, going up should happen. The players looked quicker and more athletic and that can be attributed to a better offseason workout schedule put in place by new defensive coordinator Vince Okruch. The defense generated only eight turnovers all of last season, easily the worst in the country, and had just 12 sacks. Okruch will have to work some hefty magic for this to become even a decent defense and unfortunately, decent won’t be good enough to compete.
Schedule The easier schedule should give Illinois ample opportunities to surpass its two wins from last season but playing in the Big Ten is never going to be easy. The non-conference portion of the slate is where the wins will come as the Illini face Eastern Illinois to start the year before traveling to Rutgers and then hosting Syracuse. A 2-1 record is a must before heading into conference action and tough games against Iowa and Michigan St. two teams they lost to by a combined 75 points last year. The Illini get Ohio St. at home as well as winnable games against Indiana and Ohio in its final non-conference game. For the second straight year, Illinois does not have Michigan and Minnesota on the schedule but with all of the power in the conference, more than one win is likely out of the question.
You can bet on… Head coach Ron Zook will have his team playing hard week in and week out as he did last year despite the horrendous season. Zook is a great motivator but that can only carry a team so far as it comes down to talent and that is something the Illini are outclassed in by almost every other Big Ten squad. Illinois was only 1-7 against the number in Big Ten action last year and that was a slight four-point cover against Wisconsin. Over the last three years, the Illini are 5-18 ATS within the conference. Illinois is 8-19 ATS as an underdog over the last three years and has not won a road game over that span either. The first road game at Rutgers looks like the only possibility of a win but even that is a huge stretch.