Although Zook's squad lost three of its last four down the stretch, a 24-point win over Baylor in the Texas Bowl certainly gave the Illini players some pep heading into the 2011 season. The Fighting Illini haven't been to back-to-back bowl games since the 1991-92 season, and senior wide receiver A.J. Jenkins said there's no question that the streak of futility will end.
"We're going to win this year, so that's going to end," Jenkins said. "It's not even a question."
Named to the Biletnikoff Award Preseason Watch List, Jenkins is one of the top wide receiver playmakers in the conference. Jenkins led the team with 56 catches, 746 receiving yards and seven receiving touchdowns in 2010, finishing sixth in the Big Ten in receptions per game (4.31).
Although he was named the team's Most Outstanding Receiver and leads the team in over confidence, Jenkins isn't the best playmaker on his team.
Finishing second to Wisconsin's James White in the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award last season, Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase certainly showed himself as one of the more dynamic quarterbacks in the conference. Scheelhaase threw for more than 1,800 yards and 17 touchdowns, while also rushing for 868 yards and five more scores.
"Obviously we're excited about our quarterback. I think even though he is only a sophomore, he's a young man that's continued to improve not only on the field, but I can't tell you the way he leads off the field," Zook said. "He's unbelievable. It's been fun to watch. He's a guy that obviously, as I said, you have to remember he's just a redshirt sophomore, but a guy that's continued to improve.
Scheelhaase will be the key to the spread offense, especially since running back Mikel Leshoure took off for the NFL, and he'll be tested to improve an offense that finished 111th in the nation in passing. Scheelhaase certainly took a step in his bowl game, completing 18-of-23 passes for 242 yards and scoring Illinois' final touchdown on a 55-yard scamper with 41 seconds left in the game.
"If you look at the first half of the season, he threw seven interceptions, the second half the season one interception," Zook said of Scheelhaase. "He learned to take care of the football and tried hard to do the things our coaches put in place for him to do."
Keeping with the conference theme, defensive improvement was needed after the Illini finished dead last in the Big Ten in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2009. The defensive front was better last season, finishing second in the Big Ten in sacks and tackles for loss. Although linebacker Martez Wilson and defensive tackle Corey Liuget left early for the NFL, the secondary has three starters back, including free safety Trulon Henry, a big, linebacker-sized defender.
"Sure, we'd love to have them back," Zook said of the group that left early. "With Corey, if he would have come back, maybe had an opportunity to be a top-five pick. No question, Martez Wilson, both of those guys, their football is in front of them. Michael had a great year for us. It's an opportunity for him to go on and play in the National Football League. These are dreams these guys have had."
In its drive for another bowl win, Illinois has one of the most favorable/easier schedules in the conference. Since ending their annual non-conference border battle with Missouri, Illinois has four non-conference home games against four teams that didn't make bowl games last season, doesn't play Nebraska and plays all the top teams (Ohio State, Northwestern and Wisconsin) at home.
Throw in the fact that the Illini go back to State College, where it won decisively 33-13 last season, the eight home games and favorable schedule will mean the Badgers have their work cut out for them against a talented quarterback in their final road game of the season.
Overall Record: Illinois leads 35-34-7
Record in Champaign: Illinois leads 19-14-3
Last Meeting: Wisconsin won, 27-17, in Madison in 2008