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COLLEGE FOOTBALL | TOP 25 COUNTDOWN

No. 17 ILLINOIS

(Jonathan Newton - Twp)
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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Basics

2007 record

9-4, 6-2 Big Ten (lost to Southern California, 49-17, in the Rose Bowl)

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Returning Starters

7 offense, 6 defense

Key Game

vs. Missouri, Aug. 30

Player to Watch

Vontae Davis,

junior cornerback

One of the nation's best cover cornerbacks, the Dunbar graduate also is not afraid to be physical stopping the run. Davis should be a big asset in defending Ohio State's Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline, and Wisconsin's Travis Beckum.

Why They're Worth Watching

By stockpiling blue-chip prospects, Coach Ron Zook needed just three seasons to transform Illinois from a 2-9 program without hope to a 9-4 Rose Bowl squad. Quarterback Juice Williams, running back Rashard Mendenhall and wide receiver Arrelious Benn helped power the Illini's resurgence with a dangerous option offense. Williams is a flashy scrambler in the backfield, with size (6 feet 2, 233 pounds) and power. Benn, another Dunbar graduate, had a promising freshman campaign (676 receiving yards and two touchdown catches). He's a playmaker who could become a household name. Losing Mendenhall to the NFL was a big hit; he was the quiet motor driving the offense, and matching his production will be tough. But Illinois still has quality at the skill positions -- and capable backups such as junior running back Daniel Dufrene, the likely replacement for Mendenhall -- to continue running a sleek and exciting offense.

Why They're Vulnerable

The Illini surprised the Big Ten last season, upsetting No. 1 Ohio State, No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 21 Penn State en route to a Rose Bowl appearance. Illinois is not going to sneak up on anyone this season. Big Ten opponents should be ready for Williams, Benn and the team's option attack, which rambled its way to the most rushing yards (256.8 per game) and third-most total yards (425) in the Big Ten. Though teams could not account for its rushing attack, the Illini's passing game was not nearly as difficult to defend. Williams, though he is a dynamic playmaker with his feet, has struggled throwing the ball; Illinois ranked 109th nationally in passing offense. Williams probably will have to develop into a more consistent passer, and Illinois likely will have to employ a more complete offensive approach this season, especially with a taxing schedule that includes neutral-site or road games against Missouri, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin.

-- Mark Viera

Tomorrow

No. 16 Kansas.

Previously

No. 25 Arizona State, No. 24 Alabama, No. 23 California, No. 22 Penn State, No. 21 Wake Forest, No. 20 Wisconsin, No. 19 Tennessee, No. 18 Oregon.


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