Is Illinois a Legitimate Division Contender?

Illinois enters this season with a great chance to pry the Leaders Division from the claws of the Wisconsin Badgers. With Penn State and Ohio State ineligible for postseason competition, it is not out of the question that Illinois can make it to Indianapolis for the conference title game.

Tim Beckman has instilled this notion in his players’ minds since day one. Each player wears an orange wristband with the date of the conference championship etched into it.

Additionally, the passcode to enter the practice facility is the date of the game. If you’re ever in Champaign and you feel like getting into the Illini practice facility, go ahead. 12-03-12 is the date of the Big Ten conference championship.

This season, Indiana will be lucky if they win two games, and Purdue isn’t quite ready to contend for a division title. That leaves Illinois as the only team with a fighting chance to challenge Wisconsin for the division.

Wisconsin lost their field general Russell Wilson to the draft, but return their Heisman trophy candidate running back, Montee Ball. If Wisconsin can get Ball rolling early and often, they will be very tough to stop.

Illinois will square off against the Badgers at Camp Randall in Madison. They will need their defensive line to stand tall against this year’s best projected back. Ball returned for another season after draft experts predicted him to go somewhere in the third round. They reported that he lacked top end speed, but let’s not forget the guy tied Barry Sanders’ single season touchdown record with 39.

It is vital that the Illini take care of business in their non-conference games.  Three out of four of those games will be at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. In just their second game, the Illini will travel to Tempe where they play Arizona State under the lights. This will be a crucial game and a great test to see how well Illinois can hold up in big time away games.

Wisconsin ranks 12th in the nation in both the AP Top 25 and USA Today Top 25 NCAA football teams. Illinois is not currently ranked and did not receive any Top 25 votes. The Illini have a lot to prove after slumping away their last six regular season games last year.

This new season is a chance for Illinois to show that last year truly was a fluke. Their defense is prepped for another top 10 finish and the offense has another year of experience under their belts. The main concern right now is that the offense is not adjusting as quickly as planned to Tim Beckman’s spread offense. If the Illini can get this figured out before they start Big Ten play, the stars just might align.

This Saturday marks the start of the regular season for Illinois when they face Western Michigan at home (11:00 a.m. CT). Check back on Friday morning for the Illinois vs Western Michigan preview.

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