By Shawn Muller-
(CBS) Before the college football season began, I felt that Ron Zook and his University of Illinois football team had the most to prove in the Big Ten in 2011.
The Illini were coming off the program’s first bowl win since routing the Virginia Cavaliers to the tune of 63-21 in the 1999 MicronPC.com Bowl by beating the Baylor Bears in the Texas Bowl 38-14. The team had a great fall camp. And the schedule was set up very nicely for Illinois to make a run in the Leaders Division. At worst, I felt that a 9-3 record was a realistic goal for the Illini, and anything less than an 8-4 mark should be the end of the Ron Zook era in “Cham-Bana”.
So far, the Illini have not disappointed.
Ron Zook has his club off to the school’s first 3-0 start since the 2001 season after knocking off 22nd ranked Arizona State this past Saturday, and they should move that mark to 4-0 heading into conference play after this weekend when the team hosts Western Michigan at 2:30 P.M at Memorial Stadium. Now, if Illinois moves to 4-0 heading into Big Ten play, will it be time to up the ante for Zook and his crew?
Is 9-3 still the mark Illinois fans should be shooting for, or has a birth in the inaugural conference championship game in Indianapolis on December 3rd become the watermark?
If you base expectations strictly on the remaining schedule, Illinois is primed and ready to make a run. Illinois travels to Indiana, Purdue, Penn State, and Minnesota. Not exactly a murderer’s row to say the least. Indiana is horrible once again, Purdue isn’t very good (losing to Rice), Penn State needed a late fourth down conversion and touchdown to beat Temple to avoid falling to 1-2, and Minnesota is, well, still Minnesota. Without a doubt, that is one of the easiest road schedules I have ever seen for a Big Ten team. The only possible slip up I could see—and I am using that term very loosely—would be at Penn State. As for the others, there is no excuse whatsoever to lose any of those games.
The home schedule for the Illini is just as favorable.
They host in-state rival Northwestern next weekend, along with Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Northwestern is coming off of an inexcusable loss to Army, Ohio State looks very pedestrian (though they will be back at full strength when the visit Illinois), Michigan is more hype than anything right now (shocking I know), and Wisconsin has beaten three—soon to be four—cupcakes.
So if you are keeping track at home, Illinois plays all of the conference bottom-feeders on the road (excluding Penn State), they get their four toughest games at home, and they avoid Michigan State, Iowa, and Nebraska.
No, I am not making this up.
The scheduling gods must really like Illinois this season, because that conference schedule is a joke. I said 9-3 would be a great record for this team before the season began, but after watching the Big Ten for the past three weeks and looking at that remaining schedule, I am going to have to change my expectations for the Illini.
Now, I think anything less than a 10-2 mark and a berth in the Capital One Bowl should be considered a disappointment for Illinois. Sure, anything can happen, and teams that are not playing very well right now can “right the ship” so to speak before they face the Illini, but the Illini should be favored in every game remaining on their schedule except for maybe the Wisconsin game (and even that will most likely be maybe one or two points).
They may not be the most talented team in the Big Ten this season, but, if you are a fan of the Illini, you have to like your chances moving forward.
So go ahead Illini Nation, embrace your team’s elevated expectations.
The schedule says you should.
Shawn Muller has lived in the great city of Chicago for 7 years. He is a 2002 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and, in October of 2010, Shawn received his certificate in radio broadcasting. In his free time, Shawn enjoys spending time with his wife Melissa and 3 year old daughter Ava, catching any live sporting event, and traveling. Check out his radio show, Grab Some Bench with Muller and Bangser” every Thursday night at 8:30 P.M., at www.blogtalkradio.com/spmuller24. Read more of his blogs here.