Tate: Can't wait for football
Clairvoyance and occult powers are not my strong suit. I watch games. I avoid predictions whenever possible.
For example, how can anyone safely predict, three months in advance, how Illinois will fare when Arizona State comes to Memorial Stadium on Sept. 17? Take your pick, it's a tossup.
Similarly, we'll have to wait and see how new basketball coaches at UNLV, Missouri and Maryland impact their Illini showdowns, or how far Michigan will backtrack without crack guard Darius Morris.
There are endless imponderables, and they multiply daily. Lindy's Magazine came out early, listing Illini recruit Dondi Kirby as a likely starter at safety (whoops, he's not coming) and Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor as the Big Ten quarterback with the strongest arm (double whoops!).
Scanning the recent school year, we saw an Illinois volleyball team with Final Four potential sag when All-American Laura DeBruler was injured, and Justin Spring's gymnastics powerhouse had national title dreams until superstar Paul Ruggeri was sidelined. How could anyone have predicted the red-hot finish by Dan Hartleb's baseball champs or the sudden collapse of defending NCAA golf champion Scott Langley?
This fall we must face certain facts: Ron Zook's club will be hard-pressed to compensate for the loss of NFL-bound juniors Mikel Leshoure, Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson. The cagers have no power forward close to the potential of departed freshman Jereme Richmond. Hartleb can't expect to fully replace junior signees Corey Kimes, Josh Parr and Adam Davis. The university has seldom lost so many quality athletes with eligibility remaining. Furthermore, with injuries always figuring in, we are obliged to wait and see which sports have that kind of bad luck in 2011-12.
But you don't care, right? You want to know what to expect. Well, football is next up and, whatever your expectations, I promise it'll turn out differently. It always does. I learned my lessons early when the Illini claimed a national title by going undefeated in 1951, slipped to 4-5 the next year, rode sophomores Mickey Bates and J.C. Caroline to a 7-1-1 mark in 1953, then fell to 1-8 in 1954.
Don't try to figure it out. More recently, Ron Turner's 2001 team hit a 10-2 high and fell back to 9-26 the next three seasons. Zook's program zoomed from 2-10 in 2006 to a Rose Bowl berth a year later and then returned to typical Illini struggles.
Cleaning a cloudy crystal ball, here's what appears on the horizon: Facing the most favorable schedule in modern times, Illinois could be bowl eligible by Oct. 22 via the seemingly simple process of defeating Arkansas State, South Dakota State, Western Michigan and 2010 victims Northwestern, Indiana and Purdue, the latter three hammered by a 135-50 margin last year. If, with limited preparation, Paul Petrino's offensive unit averaged 32.5 points while employing a rookie quarterback (Nathan Scheelhaase), and if the Illini rushed for 11 TDs in their last three games, that group should be even better.
This positive news is offset by Lindy's prognostications that project the UI 10th in the conference and with only two second-team all-stars, tackle Jeff Allen and receiver A.J. Jenkins, among the league's top 50 players.
I am nevertheless bullish about the 2011 season, but that doesn't necessarily carry beyond. Enjoy what you can now because the Big Ten schedule becomes decidedly more difficult, the Illini opening Big Ten play vs. Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan in 2012, and against Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State in 2013 (after tackling Cincinnati and Washington early). Furthermore, there is a likelihood of head coaching changes at places like Ohio State University and Southern Mississippi, and this could lead to lucrative offers for the critically important Petrino.
My thoughts regarding UI basketball are almost the reverse. What I see is a troubling season due to irreplaceable departures and marginal inside scoring punch, but a freshman class that could develop as a solid nucleus in the coming years. Bruce Weber's immediate job is to survive in a campaign where, aside from Ohio State, the Big Ten tumbles in the national picture ... and live to fight another day when the young bucks mature.
In their defense
For Ohio State and other elites, the optimal way to handle defensive tackle is to bring in studs like Luke Fickell, once a four-year Buckeye starter at nose, and follow the offensive line strategy of redshirting. That way, by bringing in three tackles per year, you'd have 15 in the system in any given year.
Of course, it doesn't work that way. And especially not at Illinois. The move of fifth-year veteran Craig Wilson to defense highlights a problem that impacts the Illini defense year after year. For those who say the cornerbacks are the most difficult to find, I disagree. It is defensive tackle because, even if you find them, they're hard to keep in school.
Back in 2009, the squad was packed with 300-pounders. But Josh Brent, then a junior, was gone after that year. Two Chicago giants, Lendell Buckner and Leon Hill (he was listed on offense), didn't last beyond their freshman years. Two 2008 rookies from Washington Dunbar, Reggie Ellis and Ugo Uzodinma, didn't pan out. Huge Daryle Ballew is no longer listed, Liuget turned pro, and Glenn Foster has moved to end. More recently, East St. Louis signee Clint Tucker failed to make grades.
So Zook has two promising huskies from the 2010 class, Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe, and two incoming recruits, Chris Jones and Willie Beavers, to support likely starters Wilson and Akeem Spence and a few other unprovens.
Just imagine, Liuget and a redshirted Brent would comprise a tackle duo as good as any in the country, but they'll play in the NFL ... if there is a season.
Cheating is rampant
Based on revelations of a teammate, Lance Armstrong had performance-enhancing help in his repeated Tour de France triumphs.
Only a fool believes that Barry Bonds didn't have needle-enhanced power.
Everywhere we look, cheating is ongoing or soon-to-be uncovered. Just since last summer, 20-plus universities are either riding out sanctions or poised to appear before the NCAA Committee on Infractions. Previous "unreachables" USC and Ohio State are on the frying pan. Everybody's favorite, Boise State, faces "lack of institutional control" issues.
You want to be a champion? Check out Auburn. There were five Auburn stories on a single Internet page, none of them positive. Four Auburn players were being indicted for felony charges, an ex-Auburn player agreed to talk to the NCAA, probable cause was found in a former player's trial, and four former Auburn players say they were paid. And this doesn't include the latest on Cam Newton and his crazy father, and the fact that coach Gene Chizik's new multimillion-dollar contract allows him to be paid even if his program is under NCAA investigation. Show me a school that pays $1.3 million to an assistant coach and I'll show you a school that is willing to do anything to win.
For two decades, Illinois has avoided these sleazy goings-on, but when this comes up in conversation I sometimes hear: "Well, let's not credit something that is supposed to be routine?"
If it was routine, what was UConn doing? Where was Tennessee's oversight? What was RichRod thinking at Michigan? Were LSU and Alabama merely trying to keep pace in the SEC? Didn't they know the rules at Arizona? Was anyone watching the Kansas ticket office or the management of the Fiesta Bowl?
Between nutty fans, creepy agents, hands-out players and multimillion-dollar payoffs for schools and coaches, the push to stretch the rules has nearly outstripped the NCAA ability to investigate. But they'll probably have another 15 or 20 on the firing line by this time next year. Cheating is too ingrained in the system to think it'll stop overnight.
Why I Feel Young ...
OK, maybe Christmas and New Year's are preferred, but Father's Day is an excuse for younger family members to catch up and make the old guy feel like King for an Evening. The girls replaced my broken-down table radio, and everyone had meet-and-greet fun at Taste of Champaign.
Why I Feel Old ...
Playing in Friday's WDWS scramble, my drives were pretty much in the fairway all day. But only one was used as Andy Dixon and Mike Wallner provided power off the tee. And every time I picked up mine and drove to the preferred spot for our second shot, I felt older. Not much pop left.
Loren Tate writes for The News- Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.