Illinois Could Surprise in the Big Ten Leaders Division

With uncertainty in the Leaders Division, Illinois could surprise.

With uncertainty in the Leaders Division, Illinois could surprise.

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

Defining what is a surprise team is no easy task. Over the next couple of weeks, Athlon will take a look at a team from each of the BCS leagues that could be a surprise contender in their conference. Each of the candidates to surprise will be ranked fifth or worse in Athlon’s 2011 predictions.

This will be the first season for the new 12-team Big Ten. However, some of the excitement for the conference has been overshadowed by the troubles at Ohio State. The Buckeyes lost coach Jim Tressel and quarterback Terrelle Pryor, which opens the door for Penn State, Wisconsin or Illinois to take home the Leaders Division title.

Is Illinois the surprise team in the Big Ten Leaders Division? Here are four reasons to like and four to doubt the Fighting Illini in 2011.

Reasons the Fighting Illini will surprise:

1. Considering the turmoil and overall uncertainty of the Leaders Division, this is a great opportunity for Illinois to make a splash in the first year of the 12-team Big Ten. Ohio State will miss Pryor and Tressel and it may take a few games to sort out the quarterback situation. There’s no shortage of talent in Columbus, but with all of the uncertainty surrounding the program, it may catch up to Ohio State in 2011. Wisconsin has emerged as the favorite in the Leaders division, thanks to landing NC State transfer Russell Wilson at quarterback. However, how long will it take Wilson to mesh with the offense? Penn State has the talent, but will the quarterback play or offensive line improve? With the question marks surrounding each of the schools, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see any of the four teams play in the first Big Ten title game.

2. As expected, Nathan Scheelhaase had his share of ups and downs in his first season as the starting quarterback. However, Scheelhaase is coming off a strong performance in the bowl game against Baylor, throwing for 242 yards and adding 53 yards and a score on the ground. Scheelhaase only threw one interception over Illinois’ final seven games, while tossing 13 of his 17 passing scores during that period. The sophomore needs new weapons to emerge in the receiving corps, but should be improved as a passer and will continue to be a dangerous runner. Scheelhaase will also benefit from the return of three starters on an underrated offensive line.

3. Although some key players are gone on defense, the cupboard isn’t bare with six starters returning. Senior Ian Thomas should anchor the linebacking corps, while the secondary is a strength with Terry Hawthorne back for a full season at cornerback. Hawthorne and Tavon Wilson will form an underrated duo at cornerback, while safety Trulon Henry was an All-Big Ten honorable mention last season. Coordinator Vic Koenning was an solid hire for Zook and despite the lost of linebacker Martez Wilson and defensive tackle Corey Liuget, the Illinois defense should stay among the Big Ten’s top six in most statistical categories.

4. Illinois may not match Ohio State, Penn State or Wisconsin in terms of overall returning talent, but it holds a significant edge with the schedule. The Illini will play their first five games at home, including a key non-conference showdown against Arizona State. The first road game will be on Oct. 8 at Indiana. Ohio State and Wisconsin visit Champaign, while a road date at Penn State will be the toughest in conference play. Illinois also caught a huge break in terms of the crossover schedule with the Legends Division, missing Michigan State, Nebraska and Iowa.

Reasons to doubt the Fighting Illini will surprise:

1. Despite the optimism heading into 2011, Illinois will have to replace arguably its top three players from last season. Running back Mikel Leshoure, tackle Corey Liuget and linebacker Martez Wilson will be missed. Leshoure and Wilson were first-team All-Big Ten media selections, while Liuget earned second-team honors. Leshoure will be the easiest to replace, with Jason Ford expected to become the primary rusher for the Illini offense. However, losing two key cogs on defense like Liuget and Wilson won’t be an easy fix.

2. Ron Zook has had moments of success, but has never been able to sustain the momentum at Florida or Illinois. Will 2011 be any different? At Florida, Zook had three winning seasons in a row, but never topped eight wins. At Illinois, he has only two winning seasons in six years. Hiring new coordinators Vic Koenning (defense) and Paul Petrino (offense) seemed to take some of the pressure of Zook last year. There’s a new athletic director taking over in Champaign, which means there’s even more of an urgency to win now and not regress back to a losing season.

3. Scheelhaase deserves credit for his strong close to the 2010 season, but it wasn’t exactly against the most difficult defenses. In Illinois’ final seven games, all of the opponents ranked 74th or worse in scoring defense and 59th or worse in total defense. Against better competition, Scheelhaase struggled to establish the passing attack early in the year. He completed only 9 of 23 passes against Missouri, threw for 109 yards against Ohio State and tossed three picks in a loss to Michigan State. The sophomore should be better in 2011, but his finish to the season was a little deceiving considering the lackluster defenses on the schedule.

4. Although Scheelhaase should be better in his second as the starter, Illinois has to surround him with more weapons at receiver. Senior A.J. Jenkins is the team’s top option, catching 56 passes for 746 yards and seven scores last year. Tight end Evan Wilson will be counted upon for a bigger role in the offense this year, and the receiving corps got a boost from the addition of Clemson transfer Brandon Clear. Outside of A.J. Jenkins, the top three returning Illini wide receivers combined to catch just 17 passes last year. If the offense is to reach its potential in 2011, it’s up to Ryan Lankford, Fred Sykes and Darius Millines to step up at receiver. If this position is a concern all year, the Illini passing attack could sputter.

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Athlon's 2011 All-Big Ten Team

Athlon's 2011 Big Ten Predictions

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Wisconsin - The New Favorite in the Leaders Division

2011 Big Ten Champs: Nebraska

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<p> The Big Ten Leaders Division race is wide open. Don't count out Illinois from winning the division title this year.</p>

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