CHAMPAIGN – Ron Zook caught some guff – even as he made perfect sense – with recent comments that the Southeastern Conference "at this time, it probably is" ahead of the Big Ten in football.
The Illini coach was asked the question and he answered honestly. It's not exactly a revelation. While it's a well-kept secret that Big Ten teams have an 8-6 edge on SEC teams during the last five years, it is vastly more significant that three SEC teams have won the last four national championships.
Face it, the SEC juggernauts, along with the likes of Florida State, Miami and Texas, to mention a few, are located in states overrun with big, swift high school talent. They can recruit by auto. Their fandoms are fervent as they raise the battle cry, "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'." The Alabamas, LSUs and Floridas should be superior forever. They can go a long way on in-state talent alone.
Not so Wisconsin. Or Minnesota. Or Indiana. Or Iowa. Or Wisconsin. Or, as the Big Ten brings in a 12th member, Nebraska. And while we're at it, the dwindling state of Michigan must divide its talent between two state schools. Every Big Ten member tries to expand its talent search into the sunshine states. All look south for speed.
Stars not aligning
For the UI, it is a trying period with Chicagoland athletes increasingly hard to attract, and old minefields like the D.C. area drying up. In arbitrarily jotting down the UI's top 19 defensive players, seven hail from D.C. So does QB-receiver Eddie McGee. But D.C. recruiter Mike Locksley is gone, and the Illini have no D.C. products in their freshman class and, for now, none on the way in 2011.
If Rivals.com is a good evaluator of talent, the UI landed only one (QB Chandler Whitmer) of the state's top-10 prospects in its freshman class, and it doesn't look a lot better for the upcoming in-state class.
The current talent search has nothing to do with the 2010 season, but mediocre ratings in recruiting contribute to an undeniable lack of buzz about the future of the program.
Ohio State and Nebraska have already landed four-star linemen from this state. Of 10 athletes providing verbal commitments to the Illini so far, Rivals gives none a four-star rating and only three with three-star ratings. Four of the prospects have no ratings whatsoever, including Wheaton Warrenville South QB Reilly O'Toole. That's not to say that Rivals is correct. There are always flaws in these evaluations. UI coaches may have better information. They may see an upside that Rivals doesn't.
But wouldn't you feel better in Ohio if you saw the Buckeyes already have eight four-star prospects, more than the other 10 current Big Ten members combined? At this juncture, neither Northwestern, Purdue, Minnesota, Indiana nor Illinois has a four-star commitment. For the record, Ohio State has 17 verbals (12 from the home state), and no other Big Ten member has more than 11. Defensive linemen are scarce – a serious problem for the Illini – and the Buckeyes already have five D-linemen on the way. What we see is an Ohio State program that is averaging more than 10 wins over the last 10 seasons, is favored this season, and is miles ahead of the Big Ten in 2011 recruiting.
Following is an analysis of the UI squad that will be reporting soon.
In tabbing the "top 19" on defense, there are seven from D.C. and seven from Illinois. The home staters are undersized linemen Glenn Foster and Michael Buchanan, DBs Terry Hawthorne, Miami Thomas and Supo Sanni, and linebackers Martez Wilson and Russell Ellington.
Of 11 likely starters on offense, four hail from Illinois, of which two are local products: running back Mikel Leshoure and fullback Zach Becker, the latter a part-time position for a team that often employs multiple receivers.
Of the five returning halfbacks on scholarship, Leshoure and Belleville's Jason Ford are the only two from the state. Of the top eight returning receivers and four incoming freshmen, the only in-staters are Chicagoans Chris James and Jack Ramsey, both projected as reserves.
Point is: From all indications, it appears the UI is obliged to build a football team via modest contributions from the Chicago area (tackle Jeff Allen and center Graham Pocic are the state's only offensive starters), from a few Ohioans who escape Buckeye clutches (watch sophomore guard Hugh Thornton), and from contacts in Florida and elsewhere in the south.
Long-range, it is difficult to paint a pretty picture. As for 2010, there is hope even as the Illini install new systems offensively and defensively. If they can survive the early shellings by Missouri, Ohio State and Penn State, they should compete favorably at home against Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois, Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota. Fresno State is beatable. So is a Michigan team that finished in a 1-7 tailspin in each of the last two years, losing to Illinois 45-20 and 38-13.
But recruiting is the lifeblood, and Illinois is in a hunt-and-peck mode against 10-finger rivals. It's hard to survive that way but ... Iowa and Wisconsin are doing it, Boise State could make a run for the national title by beating Virginia Tech and Oregon State in September, and Nebraska has crossed multiple boundaries for decades, and has already landed seven four-star prospects for 2011.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.