By Mitch Light
Take a look at Illinois’ remaining schedule in 2011 and tell me if I’m crazy for believing this football team can win 11 games. The Illini, already 3–0, still have five more home games, and three of their four road games are against the three weakest teams in the Big Ten — Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota. The other road game is at Penn State, a team that escaped Philadelphia with a 14–10 win over Temple last weekend. The home games are against Western Michigan, Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin. My guess is that Illinois will be favored in all but one remaining game, vs. Wisconsin.
So there you have it: The Illini, who don’t play Nebraska or Michigan State, could be playing for the inaugural Big Ten Leaders Division title when the Badgers visit Champaign on Nov. 19.
It’s always a bit dangerous to put too much faith in a Ron Zook-coached team, but this is a solid club that has a lot of key pieces in the right places. It all starts with Nathan Scheelhaase, the dual-threat quarterback who is off to a very strong start to his sophomore season. And as always, the Illini have a strong running game. The main man this year is senior Jason Ford, who is running behind a veteran offensive line. Defensively, the Illini lost some serious star power in tackle Corey Liuget and linebacker Martez Wilson, but this is still a very strong group that held Arizona State to 14 points in last week’s thrilling three-point win in Champaign.
So what happens if my not-so-outlandish scenario comes to fruition and Illinois takes advantage of a relatively soft Big Ten schedule? Could this be a top-10 team? Let’s take it one step further. What happens if Illinois wins all the games it’s capable of winning — including beating Ohio State at home and winning at Penn State — and then somehow knocks off Wisconsin at home in late November? Could the Zooker actually be 13–0 and headed to the BCS National Championship Game in a season in which he was mentioned on the Hot Seat in our preseason annual?
It’s possible. Dare to dream Illini.
AROUND THE BIG TEN
• Nebraska has nine plays from scrimmage of at least 40 yards, the most in the Big Ten. The Huskers also lead the league in plays of 20-plus yards (18) and 30-plus yards (12).
• The three leading rushers in the Big Ten are quarterbacks — Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez (128.0 ypg), Michigan’s Denard Robinson (117.3 ypg) and Minnesota’s MarQueis Gray (109.3 ypg).
• Wisconsin has only forced one turnover in three games. Three other teams have only forced one and two teams (Kansas and UAB) have yet to force a turnover.
• Northwestern only ran 57 plays from scrimmage in a 21–14 loss at Army after averaging 80.5 plays in wins over Boston College and Eastern Illinois.
• Michigan ranks seventh in the league in total offense (403.7 ypg) but leads the Big Ten in yards per play (7.7).
• Michigan State has now lost two straight games to Notre Dame in South Bend after winning six straight at Notre Dame Stadium.