If you're looking for an early-season surprise, look no further than Illinois.
The Fighting Illini are off to a 3-0 start and ranked No. 24 in The Associated Press poll (they're 27th in the coaches' poll). Illinois' first two victories were against overmatched foes Arkansas State and South Dakota State, but last week's 17-14 win over Arizona State was impressive.
What makes this so delicious for Ron Zook is that many thought he was on a hot seat despite taking Illinois to a bowl last season. The hot seat thought was understandable: It was just Zook's second bowl appearance in six seasons in Champaign, and he entered 2011 with a 28-45 mark (including 16-32 in the Big Ten) with the Illini.
Adding fuel to the hot seat was that athletic director/chief confident Ron Guenther retired over the summer. Illinois hired Mike Thomas from Cincinnati as the new athletic director. Thus, the thought was Zook may be auditioning for his job.
So far, Zook is silencing doubters. The win over Arizona State was the program's first victory over a ranked foe since topping No. 1 Ohio State on Nov. 10, 2007. The Illini had dropped nine consecutive games to ranked teams before last Saturday. It also was the Illini's first win over a ranked non-conference opponent since beating No. 25 Louisville on Sept. 22, 2001.
Want more? Illinois is 3-0 for the first time since 2001, the program's last Big Ten championship season. And with Western Michigan coming to Champaign this week, the Fighting Illini have a great chance to go to 4-0 for the first time since 1951 - which happens to be the program's last national championship season.
The good times could continue to roll for Illinois after Western Michigan's visit. After that is a home game against Northwestern and a trip to Indiana. That means Illinois could be 6-0 when Ohio State visits on Oct. 15.
The defense figured to be a weakness entering 2011. The unit saw tackle Corey Liuget (first-round pick) and linebacker Martez Wilson (third round) turn pro early. Linebacker Nate Bussey (seventh round) was another key loss off a team that pounded Baylor in the Texas Bowl.
"They took [the negativity] as a little bit of a challenge," said Zook, whose team opens with five consecutive home games and has a school-record eight home contests. "That's what's exciting about a new year. They get to show people, 'Hey, we can play. We're not chopped liver.' ... They've taken the challenge."
Coordinator Vic Koenning's unit came up big in the upset of Arizona State, with 12 tackles for loss, six sacks and three takeaways. For the season, the Illini lead the Big Ten in rushing defense (63.7 ypg), sacks (3.7 per game) and tackles for loss (8.7 per game).
One of the leaders is sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown, who enjoyed a breakout performance against Arizona State: 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception.
The defense, led by Brown, end Whitney Mercilus, end/linebacker Michael Buchanan and tackle Glenn Foster, has not allowed a point following Illinois' four turnovers this season. The unit has forced eight takeaways that have led to 24 points.
"I feel as though we did have our doubters," Buchanan told reporters earlier this week. "We used that as motivation. We have a chip on our shoulder from hearing we might not be as good on defense because of the guys we lost."
That chip is serving the Illini well as they aim for consecutive bowl appearances for the first time since a five-year run from 1988-92. The program has won four games in a row dating to last season, which is Illinois' longest winning streak since 2007. The Illini went to the Rose Bowl that season.
BEST MATCHUP: San Diego State QB Ryan Lindley vs. Michigan QB Denard Robinson. Each is a star, and whoever plays best likely will lead his team to a victory. In fact, the team that has the ball last may win in this underrated matchup. Robinson leads the Big Ten and ranks third in the nation in rushing (153.0 ypg). He also has passed for 433 yards to pace the conference and rank fourth in the country in total offense (369.5 ypg). While Robinson is a dual threat, Lindley relies more on the pass, throwing for 622 yards and seven touchdowns with just one pick.
PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Michigan SS Jordan Kovacs. The Wolverines' top tackler (26) will need to keep an eye on standout San Diego State RB Ronnie Hillman if Michigan wants to avoid an upset. Hillman paces the Mountain West and ranks second in the nation in rushing (165.7 ypg). Brady Hoke's former team is coming off a convincing 42-24 win against Washington State and has the talent to upset Michigan if Hillman gets rolling. That would allow Lindley to use play-action passes against a shaky Michigan defense.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Ohio State's quarterbacks. Senior starter Joe Bauserman was miserable in last week's 24-6 loss at Miami, going 2-of-14 for 13 yards. True freshman backup Braxton Miller was 2-of-4 for 22 yards. He had two turnovers, though, including a game-clinching fumble when Ohio State was driving in the fourth quarter. Without better play from the guy under center, the Buckeyes will be easy for Colorado to defend, casting more doubt on what could end up being a longer-than-expected season in Columbus.
"We don't know what the plan is just yet. We're going to have these guys compete. We have an idea what's going to happen. Until we see them compete in practice, see how guys handle situations and roles and different things like that, we're not going to make a complete judgment just yet. We're going to focus on ourselves." - Ohio State coach Luke Fickell, on how he will use quarterbacks Joe Bauserman and Braxton Miller this week against Colorado
"Things are changing and you're not really sure what's going to happen. I don't know where we're going to end up. There might be even some speculation that Penn State maybe ought to get into something different, or we ought to try to go out and get some people from the East to come into the Big Ten." - Penn State coach Joe Paterno, on conference realignment
"What the hell am I supposed to do? Stop? I mean, sit in the chair and wait for the next god-dang seizure to come along? There's people that got them every day. I've had about 20 of them in the last six damn days, and I'm still walking, still coaching." - Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, on if he should keep coaching after suffering a seizure on the sideline against New Mexico State two weeks ago
POLL WATCH: It's not shaping up to be a banner year in the Big Ten, as only four teams are ranked in the coaches' poll. That's fewer than the ACC's five. Wisconsin looks legit at No. 7. But Nebraska is overrated at No. 9, as the "Blackshirt" defense has disappointed. Michigan (No. 21) is tenuous and soon could suffer the same fate as Ohio State, which dropped out following a loss to Miami last Saturday. And why is Michigan State (23rd) still ranked after being thumped by Notre Dame, while Illinois is unranked coming off a huge win over a ranked Arizona State squad? It makes no sense.
ETC.: Penn State coach Joe Paterno hopes to move from the press box to the sideline for this week's game against Eastern Michigan. He has been upstairs the first three games as he recovers from shoulder and pelvis injuries sustained last month in a collision in practice. ... Michigan State starting OT Skyler Burkland suffered a fracture/dislocation of his left ankle last week and will miss the rest of the season. MSU also will be without starting C Blake Treadwell and reserve OT Jared McGaha because of knee sprains, further comprising an already shaky o-line. ... Brady Hoke coached San Diego State to a 13-12 mark from 2009-10 before taking the Michigan post and bringing five SDSU assistants with him to Ann Arbor. Last year, Hoke led the Aztecs to their first bowl in 12 seasons. ... Northwestern didn't use quarterback Dan Persa in a 21-14 loss at Army last week despite receiving medical clearance. Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald is still mum on whether Persa will play in Northwestern's next game, which isn't until Oct. 1 against Illinois. Persa is recovering from an Achilles injury suffered late last season. ... The Nebraska-Wyoming game is one of only seven matchups in the nation this week between two unbeaten teams. ... Central Michigan coach Dan Enos will face Michigan State, the team he played for from 1987-90. Enos was the Spartans' starting quarterback in 1989 and '90. ... D'Angelo Roberts became the first Indiana true freshman since BenJarvus Green-Ellis (vs. Purdue on Nov. 22, 2003) to rush for 100 yards with 102 vs. South Carolina State last week. He earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors. ... Nebraska DT Jared Crick's status for Saturday's game at Wyoming is uncertain after he missed practice Monday and Tuesday. The staff said it was holding Crick out to limit practice wear and tear. Meanwhile, Huskers CB Alfonzo Dennard has returned to practice after missing the first three games with a leg injury and could play this weekend. ... Purdue is off this week; a visit from Notre Dame is next. Northwestern also is off, returning to action on Oct. 1 at Illinois. ... Iowa backup LB Bruce Davis left the team for personal reasons. He played in each of the Hawkeyes' first three games. ... After going 12-of-16 for 163 yards and three scores in a season-opening 42-0 win over Akron, Bauserman is just 18-of-44 (41 percent) for 202 yards and one TD the past two weeks. ... Iowa lists 15 freshmen and sophomores on its depth chart this week, with five of those listed as starters. ... College basketball coaching legend Bob Knight visited Minnesota and coach Jerry Kill this week.