Steele saw it coming
Preseason magazine after preseason magazine touted the team from Champaign-Urbana. So did the Associated Press voters. And those in the USA Today Coaches' poll.
They expected a successful follow-up to a Rose Bowl season. Eight wins? Definitely. Nine wins? Within reach. Ten wins? Possible.
So, who knew Illinois would be 5-5 with two games left in the season? Phil Steele, that's who.
Check out his preseason magazine and you won't find Illinois in his Top 50.
Western Michigan is in there (No. 40). So is East Carolina (No. 45), Ball State (No. 46) and Northwestern (No. 49). But no Illinois.
Before you start thinking the Ohio-based Steele is anti-Illinois, look at his 2007 magazine. That's when he predicted Illinois would be the No. 2 most improved teams during the upcoming season. He got that one right, too.
Steele doesn't count on emotions or rooting interest to guide his picks. He uses statistics, charts, graphs, past history.
Working nonstop on college football helps with his accuracy. Steele will tell you he can't name a player in the NBA other than nearby LeBron James. But ask him about the third-string kicker at North Texas and he's got it covered.
Illinois statistics in 2006 pointed Steele toward a breakthrough in 2007. The 2006 team outgained Big Ten opponents by 20 yards a game, but went just 1-7 in the conference.
"That's more like a 5-3 record in the Big Ten," Steele said. "I thought they were much stronger. They had a lot of returning starters. I was really high on Illinois and they didn't disappoint me."
What went wrong
In 2008, the numbers pointed to trouble for the Illini.
"The 24 lettermen they lost was the most in the Big Ten," Steele said. "(Rashard) Mendenhall, to me that was a huge loss. You were a defensive coordinator having to deal with Mendenhall on a weekly basis.
"In 2007, they only had two starters lost to injury all year. Incredible luck. That doesn't happen two straight years."
History also provided a clue. Teams that have a big upswing one season "generally come back down a bit the next year."
"All of those factors had me looking for about a six- to seven-win season," Steele said.
Before the season, Steele called the Illinois-Western Michigan game a tossup. He thought Illinois would beat Minnesota at home, but lose to Michigan at Ann Arbor.
The Illinois schedule bothered Steele. Opening against Missouri hurt the Illini, Steele said. So did the early game at Penn State.
"The schedule had a lot to do with it," Steele said. "I ranked Illinois' schedule 18th coming in."
Like everyone else, Steele misses on teams. He had Clemson ranked No. 5, West Virginia No. 6, South Florida No. 8 and Auburn No. 12. None of those four are currently ranked.
But he did have Penn State at No. 10 and Texas Tech at No. 11, higher than most expected. His preseason No. 1 was Florida, which can still win the national title.
And Steele is happy about his list of most improved teams. Of the 23 schools, 17 having winning records.
Don't ask Steele to look ahead. He can't tell you what the 2009 season will bring for the Illini. He concentrates on the current.
"I like to wipe the slate clean," Steele said.
But by May, after scouring statistics and rating the players, Steele will be able to analyze Illinois. Based on his direct hits the last two years, it might be wise to pay attention.
Bob Asmussen covers college football for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-351- 5233 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.