CHAMPAIGN, ILL., AUG. 29 -- Illinois has planned all sorts of celebrations for this year, its football centennial.

But the biggest celebration of all may not come until 1991 -- Jan. 1, 1991, that is. That's when the Illini hope to play in the Rose Bowl, and perhaps for a national title.

If this is not the best of the school's 100 teams, it should be awfully close to it. Despite the uncertainty at quarterback and the loss of cornerback Chris Green for at least half the season, Illinois should contend for Big 10 and even national honors.

Illinois has had some great players and some good teams throughout its history, but seldom has an Illini team gone into a season with such high hopes.

Expectations would be even higher had quarterback Jeff George remained in school for his final year of eligibility. Preseason polls no doubt would have ranked the Illini among the top five nationally, and Illinois might even have garnered some first-place votes.

George's value cannot be minimized, but neither can the quality of the Illinois defense.

"You cannot deny defense in the Big 10," Coach John Mackovic said.

If that is so, it is hard to deny that Illinois ought to be the Big 10 favorite because, with or without George, the Illini will return five first-team all-conference performers on defense.

"We have talented players returning," Mackovic said.

"We've been among the top three defensive teams in the conference for two years running and we intend to play good defense again. But you have to play the season.

"I've been told that a couple of players from at least one other Big 10 school have said that Illinois will have to take a backseat to them. It could be, but you've got to play the games to find out."

The Illini will find out in a hurry.

They open Sept. 8 at Arizona, a dangerous Pac-10 team that lost only once at home last year. The next week brings the home opener against fifth-ranked Colorado, which humiliated Illinois, 38-7, last year.

So new quarterback Jason Verduzco will have little time to settle into his role as the starter.

The only time he was called on to fire any shots last year, Verduzco delivered reasonably well. He guided two first-half scoring drives against Ohio State, fumbled as he was about to take the team in for another score and turned over a 10-7 halftime lead to George.

Only 5 feet 9, Verduzco is a scrambler with a great amount of self-confidence. If he can inspire that same confidence in his teammates, it is going to be a glorious season in Champaign, because all the other ingredients are there.

Besides that imposing defense, Illinois has:

A veteran offensive line that was operating at full throttle by the end of last season.

A deep supply of good running backs.

The best tight end tandem in the conference.

Some nice prospects at wide receiver.

Verduzco has no doubt that he can produce victories for the Illini, but the experts are waiting to be shown. That is why most are picking Michigan to win the conference title.

Before he departed as the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft for the Indianapolis Colts, George noted his replacement didn't have to be the second coming of Johnny Unitas to win football games. "With our defense," he said, "probably all you have to do is score a touchdown to win."

"You couldn't step into a better position," said Verduzco. "Who wouldn't be excited at an opportunity like this?"

Although Mackovic insists the Illini will not stop throwing the football, they may throw it more judiciously. After all, they have probably the top all-around running back in the conference in fullback Howard Griffith.

Griffith can run, catch and block. Mackovic calls him "one of the best all-purpose backs in the country. He does all the things you want a back to do."

The offensive line lost only tackle Craig Schneider. He'll be replaced by sophomore Jim Pesek, a 6-4, 280-pounder. At least two of the offensive linemen, center Curt Lovelace and guard Tim Simpson, are all-Big 10 prospects.

The marquee player on defense, obviously, is nose guard Moe Gardner, an Outland Trophy finalist last year. Mackovic never tires of praising Gardner's work ethic.

"He's a relentless player," Mackovic said. "I think he's the best at his position and perhaps the best at any position in college football this season."

But Gardner probably is not the most physically talented player on the unit. When next year's NFL draft comes along, don't be surprised if Mel Agee is the first Illini picked -- and one of the first from any team.

The 6-4, 284-pound Agee was an all-Big 10 tackle last year but has been moved to rush linebacker, which is like a defensive end.

Another prime-time player is linebacker Darrick Brownlow, who has been a Butkus Award semifinalist the last two seasons. Brownlow is the spiritual leader of the defense, "our razzmatazz guy," said Mackovic.

The defensive backfield led the Big 10 and was fourth in the nation in pass defense last year. In 12 games, they gave up only five touchdowns and, in one stretch, went 32 quarters without giving up one.

All four starters are back, but cornerback Green will be out until at least the Wisconsin game after breaking an ankle in the first full scrimmage. Henry Jones, the other corner, is being touted as a Jim Thorpe Trophy candidate. Mackovic says Jones will be returning punts as well this year. He and safety Marlon Primous were all-Big 10 first-teamers last year.