In many cases the disappointment and failures of past football seasons give way to dreams of bowl games, packed stadiums and big wins on cold Saturdays in the fall.
It's game week! And for Illini fans everywhere, it's a chance to get excited about a program that hasn't produced a lot of exciting moments in the past decade. It's a chance to forget the frustrations and the sometimes unbearable Saturday's of the past few years and look ahead to a program that is bringing in the type of talent it hasn't brought in since the Mike White era—the type of talent that will eventually be able to compete with the big boys of the Big Ten and hopefully put the Illini back on the football map.
I can't wait for things to get going on Saturday evening. I can't wait to see Isiah "Juice" Williams to take the field so we can take a long awaited look at what we all believe is the quarterback of the future. I can't wait to see Jeff Cumberland blazing across the middle of the field to catch passes. I can't wait to see guys like Vontae Davis and Trevon Bellamy roaming through the secondary knocking down passes and making plays.
It's hard not to be excited for Saturday. We have heard for months how this team has improved off the field in terms of strength, speed and confidence and we spent an entire year hearing about (and watching) this recruiting class come together and if I were an Illini fan—no matter how rough the last few years were—I would do everything I could to be in Memorial Stadium on Saturday evening to get the first look at the future of this program.
And that's what this year is all about. As I mentioned time and time again last year in my Bleeding articles this is not a program that is going to turn in one off-season or one recruiting class. It's going to take a few years of great recruiting classes before this program has the type of talent to compete in the upper echelon of the conference and compete with the national powers, but that doesn't mean you can't get excited about progress and that you can't get excited about glimpses into the future as you watch the freshman fly around the field.
No matter what type of talent Coach Zook and his staff brought in as part of this past recruiting class, these guys—and this team for that matter—is still rather young and they are still going to make the underclassmen mistakes. But what I am extremely excited about is that they are going to make those mistakes with greater speed/athleticism and they are going to be able to use their natural talent to make up for a few of those mistakes. That alone is a breath of fresh air for the Illinois football program!
I know I say this every single August, but I will say it again. One of these days we are going to look back on an Illinois football season and say, "It was that season that began the turnaround." As we get ready for Eastern Illinois under the lights, here is to hoping that phrase rings true for the 2006 Fighting Illini football season.
Into the Crystal BallAs we get ready for the 2006 season, it's time for me to unveil my predictions for the year. Over these years these predictions certainly haven't been foolproof (especially considering I picked this team to win 7-8 games two years after the Sugar Bowl), but hopefully these predictions will be more on the mark.
September 2nd, 2006: Illinois vs. Eastern Illinois
No better way to open the season than welcoming a Division IAA program into Champaign! To be completely honest, it doesn't bother me one bit and I love the fact that the program has started to become a little smarter in terms of who they are scheduling each and every year.
Under the lights, the Illini should kick off the 2006 season in style as they handle Eastern Illinois on both sides of the football on their way to an easy victory.
Illinois: 38 Eastern Illinois: 10
September 9th, 2006: Illinois @ Rutgers
In a rematch of last years opening game, the Illini head out to New Brunswick, NJ to take on a much improved Rutgers Scarlet Knights team. Rutgers had their breakout season last year (returning to a bowl game after years of going home for the Holidays) and they are primed for a big year.
This will be an early test of exactly where the Illini are at. Can they go on the road and win a game against a team that should be playing in a bowl game? I think they keep it close early but Rutgers pulls away late.
br> Rutgers: 31 Illinois: 17
September 16th, 2006: Illinois vs. Syracuse
For all of the struggles that the Illinois football program has endured over the last few years, the Syracuse Orangemen haven't been far behind. The Orangemen have gone quickly from one of the best programs in the Big East to a program that hopes to be ahead of Temple at the end of the year.
If you are an Illini fan, this is a game that you can circle and expect your team to win. Syracuse will be better, buy they still are a ways away from being a good football team. In addition to that the game is being played on your home turf and as you try to re-establish some soft of home field advantage this is a game you need to pull out.
I think the game will be close, but the Illini will have a strong fourth quarter and beat the Orangemen by a touchdown.
Illinois: 27 Syracuse: 20
September 23rd, 2006: Illinois vs. Iowa
The end of the non-conference schedule brings about a rude awakening to Champaign as the Iowa Hawkyes invade Memorial Stadium. The Hawkeyes (as hard as this is for me to write) are one of the best teams in the Big Ten this year and one of those teams that Illinois isn't ready to compete with.
The big question surrounding this game will be: How long does Illinois compete with the Hawkeyes? Does the game get away from them in the get go (see the first Big Ten game last year against Michigan State) or do they compete for 2-3 quarters before the Hawkeyes pull away?
I know it's a big recruiting weekend for the coaching staff so there will be a lot on the line that late September day.
Iowa: 30 Illinois: 10
September 30th, 2006: Illinois @ Michigan State
After a rough Big Ten opener, the Illini will head to East Lansing to face a Jekyl and Hyde type Michigan State team. Does anyone else wonder why Illinois has to play Michigan State every single year in the beginning of the Big Ten season while they are firing on all cylinders instead of late in the year when they are going through their yearly implosion?
Michigan State returns Drew Stanton and while they are certainly not the best team in the Big Ten, they have enough weapons offensively to give the Illinois defense fits. I think Illinois hangs in early, but State pulls away in the second half.
Michigan State: 31 Illinois: 17
October 7th, 2006: Illinois vs. Indiana
After losing two in a row to start the Big Ten season, the Illini head back to Champaign for homecoming to face the Indiana Hoosiers. After losing to the Hoosiers last year in Bloomington, the Illini should be primed in front of a big homecoming day crowd to garner a little revenge.
I certainly don't expect the Illini to blow the Hoosiers out of the building, but I do think the Illini will be able to hurt the Hoosiers with their ground attack on their way to a much needed victory.
Illinois: 24 Indiana: 21
October 14th, 2006: Illinois vs. Ohio
While many are looking at this game like it's a gimee, I think it's far from it. Ohio is a well coached team (we will save the Solich jokes for October) and if San Jose State 2002 proved anything to Illini fans it's that no game in Memorial Stadium is an easy win.
With all of that said, I don't think the return of Brad Bower is enough for Ohio to overcome the Illini in the second night game of the year. In a game that will be closer than many expect, I think the Illini will outlast the Ohio to come away with the victory.
Illinois: 27 Ohio: 20
October 21st, 2006: Illinois @ Penn State
After a two game winning streak, the Illini head into Happy Valley to face the Nittany Lions. After last years pounding, it would be nice to see the Illini put up a big fight and let the Nittany Lions know that this isn't the same team they faced last year.
This is another one of the games this year that as a fan you want to see the Illini compete and be in the game at some point in the second half. While I don't think it will be as bad as it was last year this is the one game all year that I think the Illini will never be in.
Penn State: 42 Illinois 10
October 28th, 2006: Illinois @ Wisconsin
Coming off a bad loss at Penn State, the Illini take their .500 record to Madison to face off against the Wisconsin Badgers (sans their long time coach Barry Alvarez). The Badgers and their power running game always give the Illini fits and I think it will be much of the same this time around.
While our defense has gotten better (and there is certainly more talent) I am not sure they are ready to go into a place like Wisconsin and shut down the power running game. The game won't be a blow out, but the Illini will fall.
Wisconsin: 31 Illinois: 17
November 4th, 2006: Illinois vs. Ohio State
As if two road games against Penn State and Wisconsin weren't bad enough the Illini return home to finish this three game brutal stretch with a home against the Ohio State Buckeyes who is not only the favorite to win the Big Ten title but a national championship contender as well
Ohio State returns Heisman hopefuls Troy Smith and Ted Ginn to an offense full of weapons and brings a team to Champaign that will be tough for anyone to handle. While the Illini will keep the game close on emotion early, the Buckeyes will be eventually be too much to handle.
Ohio State: 35 Illinois: 14
November 11th, 2006: Illinois vs. Purdue
The Illini finally get a ‘breather' as they bring a beatable Purdue team into Memorial Stadium on Senior Day. After three losses, it will be interesting to see what kind of fight the Illini have left as they close the season.
The Boilermakers will be an interesting team to watch this year (as they are coming off a disappointing 2005 campaign) and it's hard to predict how important this game will be to them in terms of their bowl hopes. I think this is a game that can go either way and the Illini will have their chances, but in the end the Boilermakers will pull it out on a late field goal.
Purdue: 24 Illinois: 23
November 18th, 2006: Illinois @ Northwestern
The Illini finish the 2006 campaign in Evanston against the Northwestern Wildcats and this will be another winnable game. The Wildcats have been better in the last few years and have certainly given the Illini defense fits, but by the end of the year this should be a much better Illini defense and this should be a game where the Illini can sneak in a win on the road.
As nice as that would be, I think for the second game in a row they fall short.
Northwestern: 24 Illinois: 20
Keys to the SeasonThere are so many keys to the Illini being successful this year, it's hard to just pinpoint a few. From staying healthy to tackling better to playing smart on the offensive side of the football the Illini need to concentrate on these five things and more to exceed expectations
(1) Feed the Beast: Hand the ball to Pierre Thomas and hand it to him often. I have no problem with a spot carry or two for E.B. Hasley and Rashad Mendehall but Pierre is your workhorse and your most consistent (and arguably dangerous) weapon on the offensive side of the ball. I love the spread offense and I can't wait until we have the arsenal to unleash it like this coaching staff wants to, but this team needs to concentrate on pounding the ball on the ground.
(2) Change in Attitude: Coach Zook couldn't stop talking about it last year and it's been obvious for years that this team just didn't have the confidence, swagger or whatever you want to call it to fight when the chips are down. I think we started to see that attitude begin to change last year and it's imperative that the new guys combine with the veterans to continue to change the culture/atmosphere around this football program.
(3) Derrick McPhearson: To me the most intriguing player of this entire season is DMac. He came out of high school as a top ranked recruit and we heard the coaching staff talk about how special he is and to be honest we haven't seen that type of player on the field yet.
He went through a tough beginning of the season last year (when he broke his leg) and even though he showed a few flashes he never really had that game or had that moment that made you say, ‘Wow this guy is going to be a star.'
Maybe I expect too much out of DMac, but he is the type of guy who can help bring that swagger/confidence back to this program. I can't wait to see what type of sophomore season he has and I expect him to have a breakout year.
(4) Defensive Improvement: We know the defense won't be great, but they should be a lot better. I expect to see better tackling and I expect to see a much improved defense (especially in the secondary). If the front seven can hold their own and start to make some plays, I think the secondary (Alan Ball, Vontae Davis, Justin Harrison, Kevin Mitchell, Justin Sanders) will really start to become a formidable unit.
(5) Freshman Firepower: To me the most exciting and intriguing aspect of this season is watching the future of this program take the field for the first team. I can't wait to see Juice launch his first deep pass, watch the Hoo-Man catch his first pass over the middle, watch Chris Duvalt grab his first interception and I could go on and on. How much can the freshman actually contribute? That's the million dollar question and one of the aspects that will make the 2006 football season so fun.
As we sit just a day away from kickoff, Still Bleeding Orange and Blue—Jared Gelfond.