Ever since head coach Ron Zook took over in Champaign and started putting together well-ranked recruiting classes, many have viewed the Fighting Illini's talent as equal to the top teams in the Big Ten. That belief across the conference was amplified in 2007 when Zook took the Fighting Illini to a surprise Rose Bowl berth and upset of then-No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus.
With maturing players like quarterback Juice Williams and wideout Arrelious Benn as well as explosive newcomers like Jarred Fayson, the Illini have no dearth of notable names or potential pro prospects to wow scouts.
"I came away from the spring thinking Illinois was the most talented offensive team," Big Ten Network analyst and former Indiana head coach Gerry DiNardo said before the year began. "I don't think Ohio State's talent level dropped. I think Illinois has obviously gotten better. Penn State just kind of quietly recruits good players. I'd say those three teams in the spring separated themselves."
A few weeks and one major egg laid in the form of a 37-9 loss to open the year against rival Missouri hasn't done much to temper the enthusiasm about the Fighting Illini – at least from Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel.
"I felt going into the Big Ten year that Illinois probably had as good a personnel as anyone in the league, the explosive ability they have over on the offensive side," Tressel said. "Just the ability that a guy like Benn brings and Juice Williams and their tight end (Michael Hoomanawanui) who's a heck of a player and (Jeff) Cumberland out wide and Fayson out wide and all those running backs, I think our defense is going to have a tremendous challenge."
The question, then, to many is why the Fighting Illini have struggled to win games during the past two years, compiling just a 6-8 record in that span (1-1 this year) and missing a bowl game a season ago.
A few factors have been popularly cited, starting with the team's running game. A year ago, the Fighting Illini struggled to replace Big Ten MVP Rashard Mendenhall, finishing just fifth in the Big Ten in rushing a season after Mendenhall helped the team finish fifth in the nation with more than 250 yards per game.
"They don't have a great running back," DiNardo said in the preseason. "They still haven't replaced Mendenhall."
A year ago, turnovers and mistakes were partly to blame for a team that finished 19th in the nation in total offense but just 40th in scoring. Williams threw 16 interceptions for a team that lost 26 turnovers in 12 games. The home loss to Ohio State summed up Illinois' year in a nutshell; the Fighting Illini gained 455 yards but lost a fumble deep in its own territory and threw an interception to kill a scoring chance in the red zone.
Part of the rationale for this year's stumble against Missouri was injury, as Benn and top tailbacks Daniel Dufrene and Jason Ford missed major time against the Tigers, all with sprained ankles. Williams then missed all but a handful of plays in week two's romp against Illinois State with a leg muscle injury that won't keep him from the OSU contest after a week off for rest.
"They were pretty banged up as they went into their Missouri game and as fate would have it, sometimes you like open dates, sometimes you don't," Tressel said. "They happened to have an open date and gives them a chance to get some guys back healthy. I think Juice was even banged up a little bit in the Illinois State game and gave him a chance to come back. It's as it should be."
When the Fighting Illini offense is at its best, the spread look can pose problems for even the best defenses. Illinois likes to use misdirection in its running game and get its playmakers in space in the passing game.
While there's no standout player at running back like Mendenhall, Dufrene is shifty and can catch passes, Ford is a power back and true freshman Justin Green, a one-time OSU verbal commitment, is gaining playing time thanks to his speed.
At wideout, Benn was a five-star prospect and hasn't disappointed with 121 catches over his first two years and change. Fayson, a Florida transfer, was also a five-star prospect coming out of high school and turned heads in camp before eight catches over the first two games. The UI wideout corps goes nine deep, and that's before the inclusion of a good pass-catching tight end like Hoomanawanui.
"The guys out there, this is the best in the country," OSU linebacker Austin Spitler said. "I don't know how they get them every year. It's pretty crazy. It makes it a great challenge going out there and playing those guys in the open field."