(OK, who am I kidding, I am already planning on convincing my dad that a Final Four trip to Las Vegas which will break my streak of nine straight Final Fours attended in person when the Final Four makes its trip to Ford Field in 2009. So while I would love to see the Illini in the Motor City Bowl, if I am not going to step foot in Detroit for the Final Four, I don't think I will step foot in the city for Illinois' fight against a MAC opponent, unless I drive back to Chicago that same day)
All that talk about bowl games is probably a year away, but a four-hour stop in Detroit for Christmas might not be that bad of an option. This season all I expect to see on the field is improvement, and a team that plays hard for all eleven games.
On Saturday afternoon, Illini fans from across Illinois will flock to Rantoul and watch the Fighting Illini in their intra-squad scrimmage. Most fans will leave with either dreams of Pasadena or nightmares of repeating the last two seasons of Illinois football. I have a feeling that as they are driving back to cities all across Illinois, there will be more dreaming of Pasadena (well probably not as the Rose Bowl is housing the BCS Championship Game this season) and a Big Ten Championship than with nightmares. All of this is thanks to the excitement surrounding the Illinois football program injected by Ron Zook and his coaching staff.
I thought it would be hard for me to be excited about Illinois football again after the last two years, but I admit to being very curious about what Ron Zook will bring to the Illini. I am not expecting an appearance in a BCS bowl game, nor am I even expecting to see a winning season in 2005. What I am expecting is a collection of players that play an exciting brand of football in front of a crowd that cheers hard for them, understanding that Ron Zook's rebuilding job in Champaign will take more than one recruiting class, and one summer.
As one of the fans that dubbed last season the Ron Turner Farewell Tour, I honestly can say my attitude for Illinois football has made a complete 180.
What has Ron Zook done to get me excited about Illinois football?
Besides the standard new blood in the coaching circles always getting people excited about their favorite team, Ron Zook has done a lot to get people excited about Illinois football.
Zook has been marketing the Illinois football program across the state and the country. He has been building off the success of the Illinois basketball team, and pointed out that it could happen in Champaign in football as well. He has embraced the culture of wearing orange every where and he often showed up on ESPN broadcasts of Illinois basketball games reminding people there was also a football team at the University of Illinois.
Zook has been recruiting his butt off. Just look at the first recruiting class he landed with Derrick McPhearson, Rashard Mendenhall and Ismail Abdunafi (even though Illinois is still waiting for the NCAA Clearinghouse to clear him) leading the way. The athleticism Ron Zook brought to Champaign in just one winter of recruiting was more than Ron Turner did in seven. Combining the class signed in February with the verbal commitments he already has for the Class of 2006 (see the list at the end of the article), it is tough to not be excited about where Illinois football is headed.
Zook has embraced the media, and become a go-to guy for interviews. It always seemed like Ron Turner was distant with the media, and was just answering questions because it was a line item description in his job. It is not that way with Ron Zook, whether you are reading quotes from him in the newspaper or listening to him on the radio (heck he even appeared on Kansas City radio Thursday morning), Zook truly appears to enjoy discussing football with the media, and it is refreshing.
What do I expect from Illinois football this season?
I admit to not watching many Florida football games last year, or any year in the past. So, I did not know much about what Ron Zook brought to the table as a coach until I read the three great series of articles from Illinisports on Ron Zook's Coaching History (Part I | Part II), Coaching Philosophies (Part I: The Offense | Part II: The Defense), and the introduction to the Illini Assistant Coaches (Part I: The Offense | Part II: The Defense). These articles really did not change my expectations for this season, but it helped me know more of what to expect on the field.
When every fan looks over their favorite team's schedule, they find games and circle them as guaranteed wins. Unfortunately, I have been jaded as an Illinois fan, and now I see toss-up when I see the State University of New Jersey on the schedule. I bet Rutgers fans are seeing Illinois on the schedule and saying, "Hey, we could sneak out of Champaign with a win in this one." Now, if Ron Zook coaches like I did in NCAA Football 2006, Illinois should beat Rutgers 96-14. Pierre Thomas, E.B. Halsey, and Rashard Mendenhall will each rush for 100 yards (OK, Thomas and Halsey rushed for 200+) and 3 TDs. I don't think that is too likely, but an Illinois win would be great way to start the season.
Looking ahead to the Big Ten schedule, it is always nice to remember that Illinois is always one of the lucky schools when it comes to scheduling. Why? They always are required to play their protected rivals: Indiana & Northwestern. Neither school is known for their football prowess, but neither is Illinois, so these games will probably be hard fought once again. This season the Illini are lucky enough to miss Michigan and Minnesota this year on their conference schedule, but they are unfortunate enough to have to travel to Iowa City, Columbus, and West Lafayette for what will probably be three sure losses.
For Illinois to make a bowl game, they will need to win at least two of their non-conference games (probably Rutgers and San Jose State) and pick up wins against both of their protected rivals (Indiana and Northwestern) while sneaking out two more victories somewhere. The most likely candidates for wins other than those four games are Penn State (homecoming) and Michigan State (Big Ten home opener).
Looking ahead, I see the best-case scenario for the Illini is five wins, while the worst-case scenario is a two-win season. Either way, the football will be fun to watch from the West Balcony, and I am counting down the days until September 3.
ILLINOIS' CLASS OF 2006 VERBAL COMMITMENTS