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February 22, 2008

Illinois hopes its ready to take next step

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com.
Previous mailbags
Feb. 15: Waiting on Pryor
Feb. 8: Reality check
Feb. 2: One-year wonder?

Longevity is the factor that separates a nationally respected program from a national power.

Teams can rise up and play well for a year or two, but they're not acknowledged as a power until they've shown the ability to play at a high level for an extended period of time.

Some programs rise to power only to fall back to mediocrity within a season or two, such as Arizona, North Carolina and Michigan State did at various times in the 1990s.

In recent seasons, several upstart programs Wake Forest, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Rutgers have gained national respect. It will be interesting to see if any become national powers.

Eyeing Illinois

Do you think Illinois has a real shot to become not only a Big Ten power, but a national power as well?

Kurt in Champaign, Ill.

The next step for Illinois is proving that last season's 9-4 campaign wasn't a fluke. I don't think it was. The Illini lost four games, but two of those were to opponents that finished in the top five No. 3 USC and No. 4 Missouri.

If Illinois follows up with another strong season, it may be approaching national-power status, but it still will have to prove itself over time.

Illinois has a lot in its favor. Coach Ron Zook has a youthful program that returns seven offensive starters and six defensive starters. Tailback Rashard Mendenhall's early entry into the NFL Draft hurt, but Daniel Dufrene returns and Zook brought in two three-star backs in his 2008 recruiting class to add depth and competition there.

In fact, Zook's past two recruiting classes have been ranked among the nation's top 25 by Rivals.com, and that should be encouraging in Champaign.

If Zook continues to recruit well and he doesn't appear to be slowing down then look for the Illini to become a consistent power in the Big Ten, which by definition would make it a national power.

Pondering predictions

Some time last year, I asked why you thought Boston College would win its division instead of Wake Forest. Now, I ask why it is you think Clemson will win the ACC and, thus, the division Wake Forest just happens to be in?

Al in North Carolina

Tough question, Al. It seems every year I look at Clemson, see what appears to be a championship-caliber team and expect great things only to watch the Tigers underachieve and lose a game or two they really shouldn't.

Clemson is like a pretty yet disturbed ex-girlfriend who looks great, but has underlying issues that always drive you crazy. And yet here I am seduced by her charms again.

The Tigers' list of eight offensive starters and nine defensive returning starters includes quarterback Cullen Harper, tailbacks James Davis and C.J. Spiller maybe the best pair in the country All-ACC receiver Aaron Kelly and All-ACC safety Michael Hamlin. All this from a team that went 9-4, with two losses by a field goal.

What more could you ask for, right?

Yeah, the red flags are there again the schedule sends Clemson to Wake Forest, to Boston College, to Florida State and to Virginia. But you can overlook that imperfection.

In truth, Wake Forest might be a safer bet in the Atlantic Division. The Deacons followed up their 2006 ACC championship season with a solid nine-win campaign in 2007. Wake returns quarterback Riley Skinner, tailback Josh Adams and seven starters on defense.

But Clemson promised she wouldn't let me down again. And this time I think she means it. I mean, she really means it.


Bayou better

I will bet you a Diet Mountain Dew that LSU beats Georgia in Baton Rouge on Oct. 25, 2008, and also beats Florida in the Georgia Dome to win the '08 SEC championship. LSU's defense will be the best in the nation, and if (quarterback Ryan) Perrilloux stays out of trouble the offense will be better than it was in '07.

Andy in Louisiana

Let the record show that Andy's wager was made before Perrilloux was suspended for the third time by coach Les Miles. I'm not much for soft drinks, but had you put up a plate of crawfish etouffee, I might have taken you up on it.

Not to worry, though. I would imagine Perrilloux will be in charge of the offense well before that Oct. 25 matchup against Georgia.

I'll agree LSU's defense, which returns five starters (that doesn't include lineman Ricky Jean-Francois, who was dominant in the championship game victory over Ohio State), could be one of the best in the country. A good defense always provides a chance to win, and no one should doubt that LSU has a chance especially in Baton Rouge, which is as hostile an environment for an opposing team as there is in college football.

But my pick is that Georgia wins the SEC title. Losing a game wouldn't end the Bulldogs' championship hopes. Seems to me last year's SEC champion lost two conference games, right?

Florida, Tennessee and maybe South Carolina will challenge in the SEC East, but I'm going to stick with Georgia as my preseason pick to win the East. And if that happens, I think Georgia will be a good bet in the Georgia Dome.

Two straight for Tennessee?

Just wondering your opinion of Tennessee's chances of winning the SEC East again? The Vols return the entire offensive line, tailback Arian Foster and all of the wide receivers on offense, and the defense returns nearly everyone and gets back Demetrice Morley in the secondary. Do you think the chance is good? Also, what is your opinion of the Vols' new offensive coordinator?

John in Monterey, Mexico

Tennessee is one of those programs that if you dismiss its chances of winning the SEC East, you're well, you're stupid.

Frankly, I didn't think the Vols would win it last season, and if South Carolina, Vanderbilt or Kentucky could have kicked a clutch field goal, they likely would not have.

But they did win it and deserve all the credit for doing so. Besides, they came close to upsetting LSU in the SEC Championship Game, so you have to take Tennessee seriously.

The primary concern about the Vols, of course, is at quarterback. Jonathan Crompton is expected to take over for Erik Ainge. But there are several other contenders, and with Dave Clawson taking as offensive coordinator, nothing can be assured until at least the end of spring football.

Clawson was tremendously successful at the Division I-AA level and has showed a willingness to adapt his schemes to his talent. I'm guessing he'll have a positive impact on Tennessee's offense.

Defensively, count on the secondary to be improved. But stopping the run also was a problem for the Vols in 2007 and that won't get any easier with linebacker Jerod Mayo entering the NFL Draft.

Georgia is my pick to win the East and I'll take Florida second. I'd put Tennessee third, but that doesn't mean the Vols won't be serious contenders.

Worth mentioning

One thing I believe is critical but wasn't mentioned in the column "Nobody wants underachiever label" (Feb. 13) is university administrative support. A school can have a rabid fan base, money, facilities and so forth, but if the university and athletic department brass is complacent and satisfied with a mediocre status quo, then it's all for nothing, really. Too many college big-wigs get off on ticket and merchandising sales and booster-club memberships and really don't care if the program succeeds. They bank off past glory, and the program ends up being a cash cow and not a successful entity. I think those "weaker" schools with a true commitment to athletic success (Wake Forest, Rutgers, Kansas, Boise State) are those whose success make the complacent traditional powers (Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida State, Miami) look silly when those powers fail miserably in spite of all the puzzle pieces being there. I guess I just think that status quo and a complacent mentality among university and athletic department brass is the biggest culprit in underachieving than anything else.

Marc in Memphis
Good point. No doubt, there are universities content to field mediocre programs, yet reap the financial rewards of playing in a big-time conference.

But I wouldn't describe Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida State or Miami as complacent. Those programs have made significant coaching changes either at the top or in coordinators recently in an effort to improve their program.

I guess the best way to get the attention of the "big wigs" of mediocre programs would be for unsatisfied fans to not buy tickets and gear or make contributions until the administrations of those programs makes a true commitment to trying to win.

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

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