By Shawn Muller–

Winning a bowl game like the Texas Bowl may not be that big of a deal to many who follow college football, but for the University of Illinois fans and Ron Zook, they will gladly take it. Illinois was dominant against the Baylor Bears in their 38-14 blowout victory in Houston, Texas last night. With the win, the Illini secured their first bowl win since 1999, when Illinois beat the Virginia Cavaliers 63-21 in the Bowl. Since that victory over the Cavaliers just over a decade ago, the once proud Illinois football program has been at, or near the bottom of the Big Ten, going a combined 45-73 heading into the 2010 season. Needless to say, it has not been much fun to be an Illini football fan for the past 10 years.

So, with the 2010 football season in the books, can the University of Illinois build on the bowl victory heading into the 2011 campaign? Is there reason to be optimistic about the future of Illinois football?

Not only do I think Illinois will be bowling again in 2011, I think they have a chance to be a player in the Leaders Division of the new B1G Ten divisional alignment.

Look at the lineup for Illinois. The Illini are set to return 17 starters, including place kicker Derek Dimke.

Assuming no one leaves early for the NFL draft, the Illini return 9 starters on the offensive side of the ball, including future star quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and 4 of the 5 starters on the offensive line. The biggest concern surrounding Illinois is whether or not All-Big Ten running back Mikel LeShoure will return for his senior season. But even if LeShoure decides to bolt for the draft, the Illini are pretty deep at the running back position, with senior-to-be Jason Ford being more than capable of filling LeShoure’s shoes if need be.

The defensive side of the ball looks fine as well. The unit is set return 8 starters, including a healthy Martez Wilson at linebacker and Terry Hawthorne at the cornerback position. It is possible that junior defensive tackle Corey Liuget will decide to enter the NFL draft, but the return of Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan along the defensive line will off set the potential blow of losing the big defensive tackle.

The schedule sets up nicely for the Illini as well.

Sept. 3 – Arkansas State

Sept. 10 – South Dakota State

Sept. 17 – Arizona State

Sept. 24 – Western Michigan

Oct. 1 – Northwestern

Oct. 8 – @ Indiana

Oct. 15 – Ohio State

Oct. 22 – @ Purdue

Oct. 29 – @ Penn State

Nov. 5 – BYE

Nov. 12 – Michigan

Nov. 19 – Wisconsin

Nov. 26 – @ Minnesota

The toughest games on the Illinois schedule during the first six weeks will be against Arizona State and rival Northwestern. Assuming the Illini take care of business against the Sun Devils and the Wildcats, I see no reason why Illinois shouldn’t be 5-0 heading in to their first road game against Indiana in Bloomington. The Illini will beat Indiana on the road, setting up a potential showdown with Ohio State. Illinois then takes the road for two very winnable games against Purdue and Penn State, followed by a bye week on November 5th. Illinois finishes up the conference slate with home games against Michigan and Wisconsin and a road contest against the Minnesota Gophers. Having Arizona State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin at home is huge for the Illini and their hopes of winning the Leaders Division.

With all of the key starters basically set to return to the field in Memorial Stadium next September, and a schedule that sets up very nicely for Illinois to make some noise in the B1G Ten, Illini fans should definitely be cautiously optimistic about the teams prospects in 2011. Worst case scenario, I see the Illini finishing up with an 8-4 record. Anything better than that would just be icing on the cake.

Of course, this is the University of Illinois we are talking about and Ron Zook is still the head coach, so as much as we think we may know about the Illini heading in to 2011, we really know nothing at all.

Do you agree with Shawn? Post your comments below.

steve muller Muller: Illini Could Be In For Special Season In 2011

Shawn Muller

Shawn Muller has lived in Chicago for 7 years. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and just recently received his certificate in radio broadcasting in October of 2010. Sports have always been a passion of Shawn’s. 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” at