For more on UI football, click here to read Bob's latest chat.
We'll be talking Illinois-Missouri all week as Ron Zook's team tries to end a four-game skid in St. Louis. But it's a long season. Here are five burning questions facing the Illinois football team, with an expert taking on each one:
1. How does Illinois survive the start of the Big Ten season?
That will be Ohio State (in Columbus), Penn State (Champaign) and Michigan State (Champaign). Those are the three teams the Big Ten's media picked 1-2-3 in the preseason.
Two of the three – Ohio State and Penn State – are in The Associated Press Top 10. Michigan State is just outside the Top 25.
ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit thinks the start of the season will have an impact on Illinois during the three-game stretch.
"For the first time in three years, I think they've got a great shot to get off to a good start with beating Missouri," Herbstreit said. "That's taken a little bit out of them, especially last year in that shootout, by not being able to beat them. If you're able to beat Missouri in St. Louis, and then Illinois State, that can really help them regain the swagger that I think is probably missing after a 5-7 year.
"Then, you hold on for dear life. In the Big Ten, going to Ohio State and getting Penn State and Michigan State at home, that's about as tough as you could ask for."
Illinois lost to Ohio State and Penn State in 2008. But it beat both schools in 2007. Ron Zook's first Big Ten win at Illinois came at the expense of the Spartans in 2006, a 23-20 victory led by then-freshman quarterback Juice Williams.
Playing Penn State and Michigan State at Memorial Stadium is an advantage.
"Athletically, this Illinois team won't take a back seat to very many teams they play this year," Herbstreit said. "The Penn State and Michigan State games, it will not surprise me at all to see them compete and play very well."
2. Is this the year Illinois finally beats Michigan at home?
“I think so,” former Illini defensive tackle Don Thorp said. “There’s no doubt they’ve got a powerful offense. That’s a huge key in winning.”
Thorp was Big Ten MVP in 1983, when Illinois last had fun against the Wolverines at Memorial Stadium. It’s been 26 years since the 16-6 Illinois win.
“The reason we won was defense,” Thorp said.
Michigan is 8-0-1 in Champaign, outscoring the home team 231-133. In that same span, Illinois has won three times at Ann Arbor.
Thorp will sit at the game with friend Jim Shield, a Michigan alum with two kids at Illinois. Thorp’s son, Michael, is also a student at Illinois.
Illinois beat Michigan 45-20 last season in Ann Arbor. The 45 points were the most the Illini have ever scored against the Wolverines.
“I have a bunch of friends who went to Michigan and they were extremely unhappy,” Thorp said.
3. Is this Arrelious Benn’s last year at Illinois?
The people projecting the 2010 NFL draft expect Benn to be a part of it.
“I would say this is almost certainly Benn’s final year at Illinois,” said Chris Horwedel, president of NFL Draft Blitz.
Horwedel rates Benn as the No. 2 junior receiver prospect (behind Oklahoma State’s Dez Bryant) and the No. 2 overall receiver prospect.
“I like Benn quite a bit, but because he’s not going to run a blistering 40 time he might not get as much respect as he deserves on draft day,” Horwedel said. “But I see no chance of him sliding past the 12th pick.”
Once in the NFL, Horwedel likes Benn’s chances.
“He’s a physical receiver with outstanding hands who should be ready to contribute early on in his professional career,” Horwedel said.
4. Does anybody else believe?
Jay G. Tate sure does. Why do you care about the thoughts of somebody from Montgomery, Ala.? Because Tate is one of the 60 voters for The Associated Press Top 25. And nobody has Illinois higher on his ballot than Tate, who lists it 12th to start the season.
Tate, who covers Auburn for the Montgomery Advertiser, isn’t a rookie on the AP panel. The vote rotates in Alabama, and he is voting for the third time in 10 years.
Tate said there is a parallel between the 2009 Illini and 2004 Auburn, which was coming off a disappointing ’03 season ... and went 13-0.
“They just got in a funk,” Tate said. “I feel like Illinois last year should have been better than what they were. Then, they got into a funk. They lost to a mid-level team they shouldn’t have lost to (Western Michigan), and they got messed up after that. If you played that season again, they would have had a winning record and they would have had a much better team.”
Tate points to the return of Juice Williams, Arrelious Benn and Jarred Fayson as reasons to rank the team high. He also likes the coaching.
“I’m just one of the few guys down here in the Southeast who has a high opinion of Zook,” Tate said. “I thought he was unfairly maligned at Florida. I think a lot of people poop on Illinois because it’s Zook’s team.
“Nobody would have been OK coming after (Steve) Spurrier like that. I think Urban Meyer would have had his own problems. Maybe a lot of people are still hung up on that.”
5. Is this a make-or-break year for Ron Zook?
Charles Davis, who gets paid for his opinions on the Big Ten Network and the NFL Network, doesn’t think so.
“If we’re talking a make or break, I think we’re putting too much on this,” Davis said. “In a sense, the Rose Bowl happened too early. They had a terrific year that year, and the win over Ohio State was wonderful. But if you didn’t have that Big Ten/Pac-10 dynamic that the Rose Bowl holds in such high esteem, I’m not sure Illinois is the choice there. If they go to a different bowl, I’m not sure if they’re seen in the same light as going to the Rose Bowl. I think there’s a perception there and I understand why.”
Davis thinks expectations were too great on Zook’s fourth UI team, which finished 5-7.
The former Tennessee defensive back lives in Florida and spends plenty of time in California because of his NFL Network duties.
“I think people respect the Illinois program a great deal, and I think they look at them with anticipation,” Davis said. “I know that last year was definitely seen from the outside as a downer year. I can say that with great confidence. I did the Northwestern game. This is not a shot at Coach Zook or the program or anything, but that team at the end of the year, the way they played at Northwestern, it didn’t seem like going on was a high priority. It almost seemed like they had gassed out at that point.”
Davis expects Illinois to bounce back in 2009 and cover any kind of hot seat that Zook might be facing.
“I think the expectations caught up with that team last year,” Davis said. “There were expectations they weren’t equipped to handle as younger athletes.”