Illini Football Schedule: "What, Me Worry?"

One of the most frequently discussed topics in the offseason is the difficulty of the 2009 Fighting Illini football schedule. Indeed, it is a rugged test for any team and especially for one eager to right its ship after a less-than stellar 2008 season. But there are some aspects to the schedule that give reason for optimism.

Illinois plays one of the most difficult schedules in the country this year. Adding Cincinnati and Fresno State to the nonconference schedule did nothing to ease the concerns of Illini fans even though they may have been the best if not the only options available at the time the schedule was finalized.

In addition, Big 10 schedule makers drove a stake into the heart of Illini fans by placing powers Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State consecutively at the start of the conference season. Wading through that juggernaut will be no easy task, and losing all three could do serious damage to the Illini's season hopes.

However, it would be counterproductive to assume this schedule is too difficult to overcome. Fans expect the team to play hard every game, so they must also bring their game faces regardless of their concerns about the schedule. Perhaps a deeper analysis of the schedule will give Illini fans more reason for optimism.

Missouri has had the Illini's number in recent years, so starting off with the neutral site game in St. Louis will be a difficult test. Illinois overcame an opening loss to the Tigers to qualify for the Rose Bowl in 2007, but any opening loss is harmful to season hopes.

Mizzou is powerful, but they did lose their outstanding quarterback Chase Daniels, receivers Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman, and several defensive standouts. They are not shoo-ins for victory using redshirt freshman Blaine Gabbert in his first varsity game. An Illinois win would give it great confidence and momentum for the rest of the season.

Illinois State is the only opponent on the schedule expected to lose to the Illini. It will be difficult to fire up for any opponent after preparing all Camp Rantoul for Missouri. But the Illini should have enough firepower to put the game away.

A bye week prior to the start of the Big 10 campaign arrives at a good time. Any bruises from the first two games can be healed. And it will be a good time to add offensive and defensive wrinkles unseen in the previous two games, making opponent preparations more difficult.

Ohio State is one of the favorites to win the Big 10. They return a super talented quarterback in Terrelle Pryor and an abundance of high school All-Americans. However, they did lose a giant senior class to graduation. It is unknown how much leadership remains for this year. And playing them early in the year will undoubtedly be an advantage over later as their younger players will have less experience by then.

The Buckeyes will be favored at home, but Juice Williams and the Illini have the confidence of having won at the Horseshoe two years ago. There is no good time to play them, but early in the season after a bye week is the best scenario for the Illini.

Penn State is the other super power, and they return their star quarterback Daryll Clark and a strong defense led by star linebackers Sean Lee and Navarro Bowman plus All-Big 10 defensive tackle Jared Odrick. However, they lost their three senior receivers and several top offensive linemen. Plus, they play Iowa the week before the Illini. Iowa will put a hurting on them physically, so even if PSU wins at home, they may be a little vulnerable at Illinois.

Michigan State was great last season, but they lost their quarterback Brian Hoyer and star running back Javon Ringer to graduation. No one earned the quarterback job in the spring, making the Spartans uncertain at that all-important position. Teams will try to expose that as a possible weakness until proven otherwise.

And even though Illinois will be playing its third straight big game, MSU has powers Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and in-state rival Michigan consecutively before traveling to Champaign. It may be a battle of two teams struggling for their survival, but the Illini may have an advantage in terms of emotions and physical fatigue.

Illinois then goes on the road for games at Indiana and Purdue. Both are winnable if the Illini are relatively healthy and not totally wiped out emotionally. Indiana will probably be hurting also as they must play at Michigan, at home with Ohio State and on the road at Virginia just before facing the Illini. They have some talent, but their recruiting has not kept pace with the top teams in the Big 10. And ever-dangerous quarterback Kellen Lewis is no longer on campus.

Purdue is somewhat an unknown with new coach Danny Hope at the helm. But they are expected to fall into the second division while they try to pick up their recruiting. And they lost their starting quarterback. They play Ohio State at home the week before Illinois and must travel to Wisconsin the week after the Illini. As a sandwich game, the Illini may have an advantage.

Michigan has pride and a long-term legacy on its side, but it remains to be seen how improved they will be with a new quarterback at the helm and some new defenders. In addition, they play Penn State at home the week prior to traveling to Champaign, so they may be hard pressed to keep their confidence up for the Illini.

Illinois next travels to Minnesota for a November 7 game in their cold but new outdoor stadium. Minnesota used intimidation tactics to subdue the Illini in Champaign last fall, and the Illini are already gearing up to reverse that loss.

The Gophers have star quarterback Adam Weber back along with All-Conference receiver Eric Decker and an improved roster. But if they have anything left in their tanks after consecutive matches at Penn State, at Ohio State and at home with Michigan State, it will be a major surprise.

Any game with Northwestern is difficult for the Illini, but a home game is better than an away game. Their defense should be solid. Mike Kafka is an experienced quarterback, but he was only second string last year. And they must replace three top receivers.

NU has a relatively easy early schedule, so it could be riding momentum into the middle part of the season. But games at home with Penn State and at Iowa should soften their resolve before their in-state battle. And they play Wisconsin afterward. The Wildcats are always aroused to play the Illini. But if the Illini are still competitive by this time, they may have enough firepower to subdue the upstart Wildcats.

The Illini then have another bye week to heal their wounds and become refreshed for their last two games. Unless they are out of the running for a bowl game by this time, they should be able to reenergize and play well.

Playing at Cincinnati, a bowl team last year, will be difficult. But the Bearcats lost 9 defensive starters and can be defeated. The same is true for a Fresno State team that may not be as strong as last year. Especially in the cold of Memorial Stadium December 5.

Some will say this analysis is too positive, that Illinois cannot cope with a schedule this difficult. But others see the buildup of talent and the increased intensity from players eager to reverse last year's embarrassment and study the schedule from a more optimistic viewpoint.

We will soon find out which camp is more correct. After all, that is why they play the games.

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