Top 25 teams and games — No. 17 Illinois Fighting Illini

Former Gator coach Ron Zook has re-stocked the Illinois roster with talented athletes.

Sun file photo
Published: Friday, June 13, 2008 at 10:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 13, 2008 at 10:20 p.m.

Team No. 17 Illinois

The buzz: Ex-Gator coach Ron Zook will look to build on a breakthrough 2007 season that ended with Illinois' first Rose Bowl appearance since 1983. The Illini return 21 starters. Zook, always a strong recruiter, has re-stocked the roster with talent.

Difference-maker: Junior quarterback Isiah "Juice" Williams benefited from playing as a freshman, showing more poise in the pocket during his sophomore season. Williams tossed four touchdown passes in an upset at Ohio State that lifted the Illini to their surprise Rose Bowl berth. Still a threat to run, Williams has amassed a combined 31 touchdowns passing and rushing during his two seasons at Illinois.

The upside: Williams gives Illinois experience and leadership at quarterback. He'll be protected by an excellent offensive line anchored by left tackle Xavier Fulton, an NFL prospect. Zook has put together a defensive line that's six-to-eight players deep, giving the Illini fresh options to pressure the passing game.

The downside: No one emerged during the spring to replace departed running back Rashard Mendenhall, an NFL first-round draft pick. Top receiver Arrelious Benn missed the spring following shoulder surgery, and there are concerns shoulder problems will still bother him in the fall. The kicking game is suspect.

Schedule factor: Illinois faces a test right away against border-rival Missouri in the Gateway Classic in St. Louis in its opener Aug. 30. The Illini start the conference schedule with road games at Penn State and Michigan. A Nov. 15 home game against Ohio State could have important postseason implications.

Game No. 17 Tennessee at Georgia

Where: Athens, Ga.

When: Oct. 11.

Why it's sexy: Anytime two Southeastern Conference border schools butt heads, it's a happening. Both teams are projected in the preseason Top 25. The game could serve as Georgia's first big test in its quest to live up to its preseason billing as national title contenders.

Preseason buzz: Don't think Tennessee fans have let Georgia forget about the Vols' 35-14 thrashing of the Dogs in Knoxville. Georgia is out for revenge because the loss cost the Dogs the SEC East title and a trip to the SEC title game.

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