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The Nouveau Riche: Illinois

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The Norm. Ron Zook's first two years looked a lot like Ron Turner's first two years. And Ron Turner's last two years. In producing a spike from a trough, neither is far from the long arc of Illinois history. Illini partisans will remember that Turner, too, had a leap year that ended in a lopsided BCS loss in 2001:

The fact is, since the start of the first Eisenhower administration, Illinois gets about one big season every seven or eight years. Take a measure of high-end success like January bowl games, for example, and they're eerily distributed: 1946, 1951, 1963, 1983, 1989, 1990, 2001, 2007. Excluding the seventies, which were consistently terrible, Urbana-Champaign med students could count on one outstanding football effort during their hellish tenure. Not that they had time to notice.

Get Used To It. The `01 Illini was a genuine outlier, a good team with a very good senior quarterback peaking just in time to conquer a down year for the conference; see Purdue the previous season. Even though most of the team returned in 2002, including most of the stars - Brandon Lloyd, Antoineo Harris, Tony Pashos, Eugene Wilson - Illinois couldn't replace Kurt Kittner, got gashed on defense, started 1-5 and initiated the awful three-year slide that brought the axe down on Turner. It had its day, but when the bill came, its talent was spent.

Not so the current bunch, thanks to Zook's heroic/maniacal zest for stalking muscular teenagers under adverse conditions. On bodily-kinesthetic assessments, this should be one of the most talented Illinois teams in years, and has the feel of a team still riding an upward arc. Arrelious Benn did what most great freshmen do, which is drop jaws on a sporadic, haphazard basis (remember that awesome run-and-catch against Penn State? It was Benn's only touchdown catch of the regular season). As a sophomore, he should be the best receiver in the Big Ten, assuming coaches continue to whittle Juice Williams into a competent trigger man. Benn's five-star counterpart on defense is Martez Wilson, another scout's dream who moves from defensive end to J Leman's position at middle linebacker; corner Vontae Davis returns off an all-conference season, and defensive line is crowded enough that sack leader Will Davis is still fighting for his position on the depth chart this spring.

Enjoy It While It Lasts. The football gods, they give, but also they take away.You can try to make some half-baked argument about who exactly represented the "heart and soul" of last year's team, or something, or you can look at the reality in black-and-white: Rashard Mendenhall set school records for yards and touchdowns in a season, was the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and provided the only glimmers of hope in the Rose Bowl; Leman led the team in tackles the last two years, was all-Big Ten on both occasions and carried the spirit of embattled Chief Illiniwek in his indomitable enthusiasm and unflinching locks (aka, The Father, Son and Holy Mullet). Including the Mighty J, all four of the top tacklers the last two years are graduating.

Success, like sanity, is a fragile state.
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Approximate Staying Power. Historically, another nine-win season is a bad bet. A lot is riding on the continued development of Williams and Benn, which is a pretty good bet, but it was fundamentally Mendenhall and Leman that made their respective units tick. Outsiders can't judge something like locker room impact, but Leman as a senior seemed like a classic "glue" guy; in more tangible terms, neither his nor Mendenhall's production will be matched by any individual.  

Then again, it would also be a surprise if a team with so much young talent regressed out of a bowl game. This is a key transition year: if the Illini aren't a serious threat to wind up in the Rose Bowl again this fall, they can be in 2009, when Williams, Benn, Wilson, Davis et al will be on their farewell tour and expectations should be high regardless. How high - like top ten, potentially - depends on whether the offense shows more balance and finds some approximation of Mendenhall, even if it takes a committee, and whether the new guys on defense make the scouts look smart.

One thing you can't say: however ugly it was when they got there, the Illini didn't climb to the Rose Bowl on the bones of nobodies. Three years ago, in Zook's first year, Illinois lost its last nine games by an average of 30 points, never coming closer than 17 to winning any Big Ten game. Last year, a lot of those same players knocked off Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State, played Missouri into the closing seconds with Williams out of the lineup and had opportunities to win close games against Michigan and Iowa. Not that such margins can be tossed aside, but all of a sudden they were roughly three touchdowns from a perfect regular season. So this team should be able - or should at least have the confidence to be able - to line up against anyone. In that regard, they're not going anywhere.

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Update [2008-4-27 15:6:56 by SMQ]: An Illinois board is scratching its head over the line about Martez Wilson moving to middle linebacker. To follow up, Wilson is listed as the starting middle linebacker on this depth chart, by Rivals, and as a linebacker (no depth chart) in the school's official Spring guide.