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NCAA Football

Rant Sports 100 in 100 College Football Previews: No. 55 Illinois Fighting Illini

The countdown to the 2012 college football season marches on.  Today we preview the No. 55 team on the Rant Sports 100 in 100 college football preview series, the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Illinois enters the 2012 campaign following a 7-6 finish in 2011, which ended with a 20-14 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl win over the RS No. 63 UCLA Bruins.

With a total of 13 starters returning on the two sides of the football, and a highly-underrated quarterback leading the charge in Nathan Scheelhasse, Tim Beckman‘s team could be on track for one of it’s better seasons in some time this fall.

Impact Players

Offense

The Fighting Illini will work out of the spread offense to best utilize the talents of their strong athletes all along the offensive side of the ball. Led by Nathan Scheelhaase, who has the ability to create as well on his feet as through the air, Illinois will look to be creative and take advantage of what opposing defenses provide.

Redshirt freshman running back Josh Ferguson and sophomore power back Donovonn Young should be a nice complimentary one-two punch in the Illinois backfield, and will depended upon consistently to set the tone for the Illinois offense  given the relative lack of experience in the wide receiving corps.

Young is the team’s top returning back from the 2011 Illini, and should see the majority of goal-line and short-yardage carries, while Ferguson will carry the load in the middle of the field.

Junior Ryan Lankford is the leading receiver from the 2011 Illini.

Junior Spencer Harris will also be expected to be a strong contributor in 2012, and, if healthy, Darius Millines could have a breakout season this fall. Millines was making a strong impression toward the end of the 2011 season, and went down with a foot injury prior to spring practice from which he is recovering.

In the spread offense, tight ends John Davis and Evan Wilson are also likely to catch some passes in the flats and over the middle of the field.

How successful the new spread offense is for the Illini, however, will depend largely on an inexperienced and unproven offensive line. Seniors Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton have the greatest experience in the trenches, and will have to take up the slack sure to be left by three underclassmen who join them.

Defense

In all reality, the Illini defense could tell the tale this fall. The unit as a whole finished seventh nationally in yards allowed last season, and should again be strong in 2012.

Linebacker Jonathan Brown is the Illini’s leading returning tackler (108 tackles, 13.5 (!) TFL in 2011), and should set the tone in the second-tier. Junior nose tackle Akeem Spence and senior end Michael Buchanan should also be extremely strong in the trenches, and will be a terror for opposing offensive lines all season long.

The secondary is by far the most experienced unit for Illinois, led by three senior starters and one junior. If opposing quarterbacks get the time they need, they will still have plenty of a challenge on their hands throwing against this unit who has a ton of experience between them.

Defense certainly shouldn’t be an issue for the Illini, and the hope can only be that the offense will follow their lead.

Schedule

The Illinois pre-season schedule is far from daunting, and should allow Tim Beckman’s squad to get off to a solid start. The season starts with a home battle against the RS No. 89 Western Michigan Broncos which is definitely winnable.

In Week Two, the Illini travel to Tempe to take on the RS No. 65 Arizona State Sun Devils– who are hell to beat at home, and could be the first loss of the 2012 season. Week Three brings FCS Charleston State to town, before the Illini wrap-up the non-conference slate in Week Four against the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs.

A 3-1 start is very reasonable in these first four games, and would give the Illini the momentum necessary to start off the Big 10 season the right way in Week Five against Penn State and work their way back to another bowl game in 2012.

This is certainly a reasonable, and attainable goal.

Kris Hughes is the College Football Network Manager for Rant Sports and a member of the Football Writers Association of America.

You can follow him on Twitter or check out his Facebook page.

Kris is also the host of Rant Sports Radio on the Blog Talk Radio Network Wednesday evenings at 8 Central Time.