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April 30, 2010

Mailbag: Last chance for Zook at Illinois?

The 2007 Big Ten season was a crazy one that proved that nothing can be taken for granted or completely dismissed.

Here are some reminders of that what happened that season:

Michigan opened the season with a stunning loss to FCS Appalachian State and closed with a bowl upset of defending national champion Florida.

Northwestern lost to Duke, the Blue Devils' only victory that season.

Indiana ended a 14-year bowl drought and "played 13" for Terry Hoeppner, their coach who had died in the offseason.

Iowa was knocked out of the postseason by a season-closing loss to 5-7 Western Michigan.

Michigan State reached a bowl game by rallying from a 24-7 third-quarter deficit to beat Penn State 35-31.

Ohio State reached the national championship game despite losing at home in November.

But unquestionably the most shocking development of '07 in the Big Ten was Illinois going to the Rose Bowl. The Illini rebounded from consecutive two-win seasons to win nine games.

No one would have predicted such a dramatic turnaround for the Illini, who have returned to their losing ways -- back-to-back under-.500 seasons -- since going to Pasadena.

Could another rebound in store for the Illinois? That's a subject to be pondered in this week's mailbag.

Got a question? Click here to send it to Olin's Mailbag

State of the Illini

My Illini have underachieved the past two seasons. What does the immediate future hold? Can we compete for the Big Ten title? Is coach Ron Zook's job safe?
Rob in North Las Vegas

Can Illinois win the Big Ten title? Sorry, Rob, I don't see that happening. But I didn't see the Illini going to the Rose Bowl in 2007, either.

For some reason, the words of Lloyd Christmas, from "Dumb and Dumber," are echoing in my mind: "So you're saying there's a chance?"

I guess '07 showed there's always a chance, but Illinois probably has already cashed in its miracle under Zook. Besides, the Big Ten projects to be stronger this season than it was in '07, when only one team finished in the top 15.

Illinois lost wide receiver Arrelious Benn, guard Jon Asamoah and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, each of whom was selected in the NFL draft. It now is also without inconsistent quarterback Juice Williams. Still, even with those guys, Illinois scored 17 or fewer points in seven games last season.

The good news is that seven starters return on defense. The bad news is they were part of a defense that was the worst in the Big Ten.

After last season's 3-9 debacle, Zook shuffled his coaching staff and brought in brought in new coordinators in Paul Petrino (offense) and Vic Koenning (defense).

Frankly, I wouldn't expect more than six wins from Illinois. Another losing season would be its fifth in six years and leave Zook's record in Champaign no better than 26-46. That almost certainly would result in Zook's ouster. A rare Rose Bowl appearance can only take you so far.

SEC's next move

What should the SEC do if the Big Ten expands to a 14- or 16-team super conference? There would seem to be plenty of potential grabs along the East Coast. Who would be the most likely teams? What would the SEC do west of the Mississippi River? Do you think the SEC might court a school such as TCU or Houston? Houston would bring in a large media market and open a pipeline in Texas recruiting.
Jordan in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

SEC commissioner Mike Slive already has said the conference is "going to be strategic" and "not going to relinquish our role as one of the premier conferences." That would seem to imply that if the Big Ten expands beyond 12 teams, the SEC would, too.

The SEC likely would have interest in Florida State, but no other team in the state of Florida. Miami, USF and UCF really wouldn't offer much more in the way of a TV audience than the SEC already has.

Clemson might be a candidate, too. The SEC already has South Carolina, though, and will Clemson really offer that many more television viewers?

North Carolina? Doubtful. The Tar Heels are a fixture in the basketball-loaded ACC and wouldn't seem likely to move.

Maryland would be more attractive because it would, at least in theory, bring the large Washington, D.C., and Baltimore television markets. Some might write off Maryland because it's not really a "southern" state. But I doubt the SEC power-brokers would ignore a program that could offer lucrative TV markets just because its home state is north of the SEC's geographic footprint.

As far as the west goes, forget TCU and Houston. They play in relatively small stadiums that don't always sell out, and while they are in big TV markets, they are not big TV draws in those markets.

The golden goose is Texas. Get Texas and you get the Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and Austin markets. The SEC surely would be interested in Texas and Texas A&M, which would make for easy expansion.

In a 16-team league, the SEC West could include the Texas schools, the Mississippi schools, the Alabama schools, LSU and Arkansas. The East might include the current six teams plus Florida State and maybe Clemson, Georgia Tech or Maryland.

The Big Ten is rumored to be interested in Texas. So is the Pac-10, which also would add teams when/if the expansion dominoes start to fall.

If college football does indeed evolve into four 16-team "super conferences" as has been predicted, I'd think it would include the expanded Big Ten, SEC and Pac-10 and a merger between remaining ACC and Big East teams that didn't move to different conferences.

Personally, I like college football the way it is. But there is even bigger money to be made, and the cold reality is not everyone can afford to play at the $100 tables.

Bustin' on the Broncos

Your argument for Boise State (Mailbag, April 23) is a little ridiculous, and I think you know it. You compare Boise to Cincinnati or Georgia Tech when asking if you think the Broncos could win week in and week out in the SEC. I think the real question is can Boise State win week in and week out in the ACC and Big East? The answer is no.
Dave in Atlanta

I'll respectfully disagree. I think Boise State could have -- and probably would have -- won both of those conferences last season.

The Broncos beat Pac-10 champion Oregon, which I believe was better than either Big East champ Cincinnati or ACC champ Georgia Tech. They also won the Fiesta Bowl over TCU, which defeated Clemson -- the ACC Atlantic Division winner -- at Clemson.

And while it's true the WAC isn't a strong conference, Boise State won on the road against Fresno State by 17 points. The next week, Fresno State lost by eight points at Big East champion Cincinnati.

Yes, Boise State mainly plays weak Western Athletic Conference teams and doesn't always steamroll them. For instance, the Broncos only beat Louisiana Tech in Ruston by 10 points. But didn't Louisiana Tech only lose by eight at LSU?

Of course, comparative scores don't necessarily reveal anything. Still, if there is indeed no way Boise State could win those conferences, wouldn't it stand to reason that the champions of said conferences would crush teams that Boise State crushed?

Now, Boise State may not have gone undefeated in either the ACC or Big East, but that doesn't mean the Broncos couldn't win them. Boise State undoubtedly would face tougher competition, but those conference races really don't qualify as a "grind," do they?

Five ACC teams finished with losing records and Florida State was 7-6. Big East teams play only seven conference games and only three of its teams were in the final top 25. Surely, Boise State could get "up" for three games.

Just Ducky

Now that Oregon's off-the-field problems seem to be at an end, do you think the Ducks still have a chance to win the Pac-10?
John in Eugene, Ore.

Oregon remains the favorite in the Pac-10; the Ducks just aren't as prohibitive a favorite as they were before all the offseason suspensions and dismissals.

While the suspension of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli hurts, it's not devastating. Remember, Nate Costa had beaten out Masoli for the starting quarterback job in 2008 before wrecking his knee before the season opener.

If Costa is the starter, he won't run as well as Masoli, but he's a better passer and that could add a new dimension to that wide-open offense.

If Costa isn't the answer, sophomore Darron Thomas may prove Masoli's equal as a runner. He's a great athlete who almost led the Ducks to a come-from-behind win over Boise State in '08 before redshirting last season.

No other suspension figures to have a major effect this season. Star tailback LaMichael James is suspended for the season opener, but Oregon opens with New Mexico, which is coming off a 1-11 year. The Ducks won't lose that one even without Masoli and James.

Looking ahead

When does the Rivals 2011 recruiting top 100 come out?
Joe in Tallahassee, Fla.

Look for those rankings June 1.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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