Best case-worst case: Illinois
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Best case/worst case is the fabulous brainchild of Pac-10 blogger Ted Miller, and I'm swiping the idea for the Big Ten. Here's the first in a series exploring the best and worst outcomes, within reason, for each Big Ten squad.
Illinois is a suitable place to start because the Fighting Illini always seem to be a team of extremes.
The team jells and makes Jell-O out of opposing defenses.
Juice Williams performs like the Big Ten's most experienced quarterbacks and continues to break stadium records without the mistakes that plagued him late last fall. Wide receiver Arrelious Benn adds touchdown catches to his already impressive résumé and headlines one of the nation's best receiving corps with Florida transfer Jarred Fayson and Jeff Cumberland, who breaks an opposing cornerback's jaw with a stiff arm. The running game resurfaces. A focused Martez Wilson finally fulfills his potential and earns first-team All-Big Ten honors as the team's middle linebacker, and the defense works out its issues against the run and finds the next Vontae Davis in cornerback Tavon Wilson.
Illinois starts things off by finally beating Missouri. Williams breaks his own total offense record in the Edward Jones Dome and makes pulp out of Tigers linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. The Illini hang 50 on Mizzou and enter Big Ten play riding high. Can't see the Illini winning in Columbus again, but Benn and Fayson exploit a young Penn State secondary in Week 4.
The upset of Penn State sparks a winning streak, as Illinois' offense overwhelms Michigan State and steamrolls Indiana and Purdue. The Illini enter the top 20 as they welcome nemesis Michigan to Memorial Stadium on Halloween. Tez Wilson destroys Michigan's young quarterbacks and Williams picks apart the secondary for a big win. Illini fans hold an orange-out in the stadium and pack the place.
Illinois stumbles once more before the finish, most likely against Cincinnati the day after Thanksgiving, but the team rebounds to beat Fresno State and finish 10-2. Head coach Ron Zook answers his critics by maximizing his talent, and the team sees a major drop in off-field incidents. Zook gets more revenge in the Capital One Bowl when Illinois beats a Florida team that falls way short of expectations. Illinois finishes No. 12 in the final polls. Despite winning the Biletnikoff Award, Benn decides he loves Champaign too much and shocks everyone by staying for his senior season.
The inconsistency that has plagued the program throughout its history surfaces again, and the team fragments.
Williams puts up big numbers but throws more interceptions than touchdowns. Opposing defenses constantly double-team Benn and keep him out of the end zone, allowing their front four to shut down Jason Ford and the rushing attack. Wilson too often gets out of position at middle linebacker, and an iffy defensive line generates no pass rush and struggles against the run for the second straight season. Special teams continue to hurt Illinois and opponents constantly capitalize on favorable field position.
Missouri beats the Illini in yet another St. Louis shootout, setting the tone for a shaky season. Weatherspoon twice intercepts Williams and then downs a carton of orange juice on the field after the game. Illinois then begins Big Ten play with three consecutive losses against upper-tier teams, dropping the team to 1-4 and turning up the heat on Zook. After handling the Indiana schools on the road, Illinois falls to Michigan for the ninth consecutive time at Memorial Stadium.
Needing a strong finish to reach the postseason, Illinois fails to win consecutive games, something it did just once last season. A 2-2 split down the stretch leaves the Illini at 5-7 for the second consecutive season. Rival Iowa wins the Big Ten. Zook energizes his critics who say he's simply a recruiter, and he enters 2010 on the hot seat. Benn goes bye bye.