Illinois Football: Fighting Ilini Could Surprise in Big Ten Leaders

Illinois found its way into the record books for an unwanted reason last season. It became the first FBS school to finish the regular season 6-6 after winning its first six games.

The Fighting Illini were able to end the season on a high note, as they beat UCLA 20-14 in the Fight Hunger Bowl to finish up at 7-6..


Starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase returns for his junior season, but will once again have to learn a new offensive system.

Despite having to learn a new system, many believe 2012 will be the year Scheelhaase delivers his best season yet. While his numbers dropped from his freshman season, he still threw for 2,110 yards and 13 touchdowns, while also rushing for 624 yards and six scores.

While A.J. Jenkins will surely be missed, the Fighting Illini does have some talent coming back in the receiving corps. Spencer Harris, Darius Millines and John Davis combined for 67 catches last year. While Harris may be the top returning receiver in last year’s team, Millines could very well emerge to be Scheelhaase’s go-to-guy in 2012.

2012 could be a good year on the offensive line for Illinois as they welcome back three starters up front, including All-Big Ten hopeful Graham Pocic. This gives running back Donovonn Young a chance to develop at his own pace as the sophomore rushed for 451 yards and six touchdowns in his freshman campaign.


The strength of the team in 2011 was a defense that ranked 2nd in the conference and 7th in the nation in total defense (286.2 ypg). They were 3rd in the nation against the pass (162.3 ypg) and 26th against the run (123.9 ypg).

Their front seven seem to be headed for bright futures as they are headed by junior Akeem Spence, senior end Michael Buchanon and junior linebacker Jonathan Brown. All have NFL futures.

Brown, who is coming off a 108 tackle campaign, seems to be the standout in the group. He could very well be illinois’ fifth first-team All-Big Ten linebacker in seven years.

Senior cornerback Terry Hawthorne leads a secondary that returns three of four starters.

Head over to College Football Free Picks during the regular season for the latest on Illinois football. Get the best odds available for each game, plus find expert advice on who to take against the spread.

Big Ten Leaders Prediction: 3rd Place

This team certainly has a level of mystery going into 2012. They could end up winning the Leaders division or finish fifth.

Tim Beckman couldn’t have stepped in at a more opportune time. Ohio State is ineligible to compete for the title, Wisconsin is dealing with the loss of Russell Wilson, among others, and Penn State is just trying to put the Jerry Sandusky scandal behind them.

Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State are definitely tough competition, but the rest of the games on the Illini schedule are very winnable.

Their defense should once again be among the best in the conference, which means their offensive production may very well determine where they end up this season.

Jack Jones will provide his college football picks at Betfirms all season long. Be sure to check out the website today for a more detailed preview of Illinois football.