Welcome to The Ciskie Blog's 2008 College Football Preview. As usual, you can expect a rundown of every Division I-A (or "Football Bowl Subdivision", if you prefer) conference, as well as a brief look at the independents. Some of the information used to compile these previews came from various football preview publications that I took the time to review this summer. I give a full endorsement to Phil Steele's College Football Preview (the national edition, as well as his various regional magazines). I also have looked at Sporting News, Athlon Sports, and Blue Ribbon (via ESPN Insider). Information was also gathered from local newspapers and school websites. Please use the comments section or e-mail for feedback, questions, and any corrections you feel need to be noted.
ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
Last year: 9-4 overall, 6-2 Big Ten (T-2nd)
Postseason: Lost to USC, 49-17, in Rose Bowl
In good shape
Cornerback. Seriously, Illinois could be the best in the conference at this position. All-America candidate Vontae Davis (brother of 49er Vernon) is rock-solid in every way. He's fast enough to stick with speedy receivers. He's got smooth body movement so he can change direction with little effort. He's also very physical and willing to play a part in run support. Fewer and fewer teams will throw his way, so that puts some pressure on the very capable Dere Hicks to keep a high level of play. I wouldn't be surprised if Hicks had more interceptions and pass breakups this year, even though Davis is obviously a better player. Depth is young, but very talented, as sophomore Miami Thomas is joined by freshman Patrick Nixon in competing for playing time.
Running back. It's bad enough that Rashad Mendenhall - a very special player - turned pro early and badmouthed Ron Zook on the way out the door. But brother Walter, expected to take over the top spot, also moved on. He decided to transfer. It leaves Illinois with the always-dreaded running-back-by-committee. Daniel Dufrene leads the charge, but he's not nearly close to Mendenhall's level right now. Redshirt freshman Troy Pollard should get some playing time, too. Either way, the heat is on junior QB Juice Williams, who made strides as a passer last year but has a long way to go. Yes, this spread offense is predicated on running the ball, but Williams can't get by hitting less than 60 percent of his passes. He also needs to cut down on his interceptions (12 last year). At this point, he's obviously a better option than Eddie McGee, who filled in for Williams a couple times last year.
Zook earned everything he got last year. He took a lot of heat at Florida, despite capable recruiting that set up Urban Meyer for the success he's had. Now, he's rebuilt Illinois into a credible Big Ten program by recruiting his tail off and letting his athletes perform. This year is a big test for the Illini, as they try to prove themselves as a legitimate, consistent team.
Williams has to throw better, the running game has to come together, and the defense must keep performing after losing the likes of J Leman and Antonio Steele. Starting off with Missouri won't be easy, but a great comeback effort against the Tigers last year is what really helped set Illinois up for a super season. If they're to smell the roses again January 1, they'll need to avoid losing both of their first two Big Ten games (Penn State and Michigan, both on the road). A split there sets them up for another nine-win season, or better.