ST. LOUIS – We didn't know what we were witnessing when Illinois and Missouri met in St. Louis last season.
We knew Missouri would be good – it was picked to win the North at Big 12 media days – but how good? Illinois looked primed for a modest breakthrough in Year Three under Ron Zook. The resulting contest was rollicking theater that featured back-and-forth football, ending in a thrilling 40-34 Mizzou triumph.
Little did we know that was the first volley in what would turn out to be magical seasons for both. Missouri ascended to No. 1 in the polls and won the Big 12 North, while Illinois went on to earn its first Rose Bowl berth since the 1983 season.
This year, expectations are high for both. This is the table-setter for what could be even better seasons. But make no mistake: There is more pressure on Missouri. It's the higher-ranked team. It's the team in the top six of most preseason polls. It's the team with the Heisman-caliber quarterback. And it's the team thinking really big – national championship big. Heady stuff for a program whose last league title of any sort came in 1969, in the Big Eight.
"It feels a lot like last year," Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel said. "We have expectations, internally, that no one knows. And I think all that really matters to us 80 guys playing football or the strength staff or the coaching staff is that we know what we're capable of and we just need to go out there and do it."
While no one is mentioning Illinois as a national-championship contender, it is a sleeper pick for the Big Ten title. A victory over Missouri – which has won the past three in the series – would go a long way toward further legitimizing Zook's program and trumpet the fact that last season's run to the Rose Bowl wasn't a fluke.
"We're going to know exactly where we are," Zook says. "We'll find out about our defensive line. We've talked about them having a chance to be the strength of our football team."
MISSOURI RUN OFFENSE VS. ILLINOIS RUN DEFENSE
While everyone fawns over the Tigers' aerial attack, a strong ground game gets lost in the shadows. That ability to run allows Mizzou to keep defenses on their heels. Tony Temple is gone, but most MU insiders feel there's a better collection of runners on campus now, headed by Derrick Washington. He's a big, physical back who doubles as a threat in the passing game. But keep an eye on the Tigers' offensive line. The unit remains a work in progress. There are new starters at center and left tackle. Missouri will face what may be the best defensive line it sees all season. The Illini line – the strength of an ultra-fast defense – is led by end Will Davis. And look for rising star linebacker Martez Wilson to line up in various spots in hopes of getting penetration and disrupting the timing of Mizzou's offense.
MISSOURI PASS OFFENSE VS. ILLINOIS PASS DEFENSE
Chase Daniel is the ultimate passing weapon. He'll spread the field, making Illinois cover every last inch of it. Then, Daniel will find the open receiver. He's uncanny. Daniel's options? Many, headed by star wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. The Illini are familiar with Maclin because he scored two touchdowns against them last season. Watch him battle star Illinois cornerback Vontae Davis. If Illinois focuses too much on Maclin, Daniel will turn to underrated wide receivers such as Jared Perry and Tommy Saunders. And there's no doubt Missouri knows Illinois is inexperienced at safety. That means star tight end Chase Coffman may be a busy man. One way or another, it's vital for Illinois to pressure Daniel, whose blind side will be protected by redshirt freshman left tackle Elvis Fisher. Count on Illinois testing Fisher, because the Illini can't allow Daniel to work unfettered in the pocket. The big question: Can Illinois pressure Daniel without blitzing? If it can, the Fighting Illini will have hope.
ILLINOIS RUN OFFENSE VS. MISSOURI RUN DEFENSE
No matter what the Champaign spin doctors are saying, Rashard Mendenhall is impossible to replace. Illinois plans on using a committee of backs – maybe as many as four – with Daniel Dufrene getting the first crack for an offense that has led the Big Ten in rushing each of the past two seasons. Illini coaches have said they don't want quarterback Juice Williams to run as much as he has in the past. But that plan may quickly go out the window if the Illini rushing attack struggles. Another potential problem: The line will feature two new starters on the right side. The line will have its hands full against a solid Missouri front that has speed on the edge but will miss run-stuffer extraordinaire Lorenzo Williams.
ILLINOIS PASS OFFENSE VS. MISSOURI PASS DEFENSE
Williams supposedly has matured into a well-rounded quarterback, capable of making all his reads, remaining poised in the pocket and showing touch on passes. We shall see against a Mizzou defense that returns 10 starters. Williams will work with a strong set of wide receivers, headed by Arrelious Benn. But Missouri also has to keep an eye on Chris Duvalt and Jeff Cumberland. A veteran Tigers secondary is led by free safety William Moore. But the conundrum: To blitz or not to blitz? It makes the most sense not to blitz, making Williams be a decision-maker and pocket passer. But if he isn't accounted for, Williams could take off on long scrambles with the backs of defenders turned to him.
MISSOURI SPECIAL TEAMS VS. ILLINOIS SPECIAL TEAMS
This area will feature two of the nation's premier return men in Maclin and Benn. Give the Tigers a big edge in kicking. Jeff Wolfert is one of the Big 12's best. Illinois has its fingers and toes crossed for … who? With game time approaching, the Illini still are auditioning kickers. If this game comes down to someone making a late field goal, Illinois looks doomed. Keep an eye on Vontae Davis, who has a knack for blocking kicks. He blocked a punt in last year's game and returned it for a touchdown.
MISSOURI COACHING STAFF VS. ILLINOIS COACHING STAFF
Missouri's Gary Pinkel is fast becoming an elite coach, taking a program that was in shambles when he arrived in 2001 and slowly and methodically making it a power. A big secret to his success is that he has had no staff turnover during his run in Columbia. Much credit goes to offensive coordinator Dave Christensen and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, who both soon may be head coaches. And how about Ron Zook? For years, he was dogged by the "great recruiter/bad coach" label. No more, after last year's breakout season that included a win at No. 1 Ohio State. His top aide is offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, who is on the fast track to becoming a head coach.
MISSOURI WILL WIN IF …
The ground game is humming behind Derrick Washington and a rehabbed offensive line. If Illinois is getting gashed by runs, Chase Daniel will pick apart the defense with deep passes and MU will move the ball at will. The Mizzou defense needs to stack the box and stuff the Illinois run, daring Juice Williams to beat the Tigers with his right arm.
ILLINOIS WILL WIN IF …
The defense hits Chase Daniel. Illinois must rough him up, smack him and pressure him, putting Missouri in bad third-down situations. Offensively, the Illini have to show they still are a formidable rushing team. It's all about controlling the ball and the clock, which will do two things for Illinois: open the passing game and keep the ball away from Daniel and Mizzou's offense.
How many times do we hear that games are won in the trenches? Well, that will be the case here. Each squad has issues along the offensive line. Which one will settle down first Saturday? That will be a big key. Each line will face a rugged defensive counterpart that features a lot of speed off the edge. Illinois is breaking in new starters on the right side (guard Jon Asamoah and tackle Ryan Palmer), and Missouri will have a new center (Tim Barnes) and a left tackle who will be making his first college start (Elvis Fisher).