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July 15, 2010

An early look at the Big Ten: Illinois

The Illinois Fighting Illini

Location: Champaign, Ill.
Distance from Lincoln: 542 miles

Best way to get there: There are a couple of different routes you can drive to get to Champaign, and all have listed travel times within 20 minutes of each other. The easiest would probably be to take I-80 from Lincoln and then take I-74 right to Champaign. If you want to fly, American Airlines offers several daily flights from Omaha to Champaign with a connection in Chicago, though those tickets are running about $370 apiece right now.

Offensive scheme: Power I
Defensive scheme: 4-3

Rivals.com past recruiting rankings: No. 70 (2010), No. 35 (2009), No. 23 (2008) and No. 20 (2007).

The Fighting Illini have seven commitments for 2011, including one three-star and a pair of two-star recruits.

Illinois's history against Nebraska

Nebraska and Illinois have met 10 times, with the Huskers dominating the series with a 7-2-1 all-time advantage. The series dates all the way back to 1903, but the teams haven't played since 1986, where NU crushed the Fighting Illini 59-14. The Huskers haven't lost to the Illini since 1926, though Illinois did manage a tie in 1953.

Why this game could be a potential rivalry

There's not much reason for bad blood between Nebraska and Illinois on either side, but the fact that the teams are relatively close geographically should mean they will be placed in the same division when/if the Big Ten Conference decides to break things up.

Just like any of the Huskers' foes in the Big 12 North, the fact that they'll have to face the Illini on a yearly basis should add some fuel to an otherwise ho-hum series, especially if Illinois can keep things competitive.

Stars to watch for in 2011

Redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase appears to be the frontrunner to replace the talented but often inconsistent Juice Williams as Illinois' starting quarterback this season. This means that if all goes well, Scheelhaase will likely face Nebraska three times when the Huskers join the Big Ten in 2011.

Scheelhaase was a four-start recruit and listed as the seventh-best quarterback in the country by Rivals coming out of high school last year, and if he can develop as expected the Illini should continue to be a threat on offense.

On the other side of the ball, former Kansas State defensive coordinator Vic Koenning will take over Illinois's defense this season. Junior linebacker Martez Wilson is the undisputed leader of the unit, but he's recovering from a herniated disc in his neck he suffered in last year's opener that forced him to miss the rest of the season. If he can stay healthy, the Illini will at least have a solid leader against the Huskers in two years.


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