Jeff Sagarin’s computer rankings, in my mind, are one of the best methods to evaluate teams. When I vote in the Harris poll this fall, Sagarin’s numbers will be one of the many inputs I’ll use.
In Sagarin’s final numbers last season, Illinois (7-6) finished No. 39 nationally. NIU (11-2) finished No. 46 while Northwestern (7-6) finished at No. 80. Considering the Illini edged the Huskies in September and hammered the Wildcats in November, those rankings seem to fit actual results.
Now Sagarin has preseason rankings available. While I’m not sure how he arrives at his numbers (I’m sure last year’s results are built in somehow), here’s where our three FBS teams start the year according to his formula:
Illinois No. 56 (should finish 8-4 overall and 5-3 in the Big Ten based on its opponents’ ratings)
Northwestern No. 66 (should finish 6-6 and 3-5)
NIU No. 75 (should finish 10-2 overall and 8-0 in the MAC).
Actually, I should say NU is predicted to go 5-6-1 and 3-4-1 because Michigan’s visit looks like a mathematical tossup according to the preseason rankings. And NIU should be 9-2-1 and 7-0-1 because its MAC opener at Central Michigan also is a tossup.
The Wildcats get down to business at 4 p.m. today in Evanston. Northwestern has several questions to sort out during fall camp:
--Right guard, where NU is determined to play its top five linemen and adjust their positions accordingly. It could mean former tackle Neal Deiters starts there. It could mean Ben Burkett, a three-year starter at center, slides over to accommodate redshirt freshman center Brandon Vitabile. There are a few other candidates as well.
--Strong-side linebacker. Fifth-year senior Ben Johnson has the edge in experience, but redshirt freshmen Collin Ellis and Chi Chi Ariguzo received a ton of reps in the spring and they’ll make an impact sooner than later. All three LB spots are in flux to varying degrees as the coaches are excited about the increased athleticism in the younger classes.
--Defensive end opposite Vince Browne. Fifth-year senior Kevin Watt (Glenbard West) has been the starter, but redshirt sophomore Tyler Scott made a boatload of plays in spring. Browne said he’d never seen a guy get so many interceptions and return so many fumbles for scores.
--And, of course, people just might keep an eye on senior QB Dan Persa. It’ll be his first official practice since rupturing his right Achilles’ tendon on Nov. 13 against Iowa. How PersaStrong will his leg be?
After taking Sunday off for Media Day and Picture Day --- Ron Zook was denied permission from his wife, Denise, to get a Mohawk like junior guard Hugh Thornton --- the Illini kick off Camp Rantoul at 3 p.m. today. The practice is open to the public.
When offensive coordinator Paul Petrino discussed the first three days of practice on Sunday, he mentioned there have been four clear freshman standouts on offense: RBs Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson and TEs Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.
While the first three guys aren’t much of a surprise --- Davis was the top recruit in the class while everyone understood the Illini needed immediate help at RB --- LaCosse is a bonus for the Illini. The Naperville North graduate was a three-year starter at quarterback, so he’s certainly not a finished product at tight end, but the Illini love his 6-foot-6 frame and his ability to stretch defenses.
“I’m having a good time,” LaCosse said. ‘Wherever Coach needs me, that’s where I go and I try to make plays wherever I go. I’m glad to hear he’s saying good things.”
LaCosse brushed up on his pass-catching techniques before arriving in Champaign by meeting up with freshman QB Reilly O’Toole (WW South), freshman WR Hayden Daniels (Naperville Central) and Ferguson (who lives in south Naperville) at local parks.
LaCosse hit Champaign in June at 224 pounds, but opened camp at 240 thanks to all the weightlifting and protein shake-drinking he did at the behest of the strength and conditioning staff. He’ll need the extra heft when the Illini put on all the pads Tuesday.
“Blocking: I’ve never done it before,” LaCosse said with a smile. “But I’m learning every day and I’m not afraid to go out there and hit someone. It’s just the footwork right now. Once I get that, I’ll be fine.”
The Huskies hold their fifth practice of the fall at 3:15 p.m., which means they can work out in full pads for the first time. Most coaches like to test those pads ASAP. Considering Dave Doeren seems to be an old-school guy --- and the Huskies get their first day off Tuesday --- expect NIU to get after it today.
If you’re wondering why Sagarin expects the Huskies to win 10 games and sweep through the MAC, then take a look at NIU’s offensive line.
LT Trevor Olson: The fifth-year senior has started 40 consecutive games. He was first-team all-MAC last season as well as NIU’s Lineman of the Year
LG: Logan Pegram: The fourth-year junior started 10 games last year.
C Scott Wedige: The fifth-year senior started every game last year and earned first-team all-MAC honors. Sporting News pegged him as the league’s best NFL prospect.
RG Joe Pawlak: The fifth-year senior is a third-year starter who earned second-team all-MAC honors last year.
RT Keith Otis: The fifth-year senior started all 14 games last year.
NIU has so much experience and so much depth, the coaching staff felt fine with moving former starting RT Adam Kiel to TE. Essentially, the 6-foot-5, 289-pound Kiel gives the Huskies a sixth big-time blocker when they feel the need.
By the way, how well did Joe Novak and his staff recruit prior to their final year at NIU? They signed 18 high school seniors in Feb. 2007.
Olson, Wedige, Otis, Kiel, QB Chandler Harnish, MLB Pat Schiller, DT Ron Newcomb, WR Nathan Palmer and WR DeMarcus Grady are still either starting or contributing. That’s nine guys.
DT D.J. Pirkle, FB Kyle Skarb, WR Landon Cox and CB Patrick George already completed their eligibility and started a ton of games. S Tracy Wilson was considered a pro prospect prior to the 2010 season. He left in the offseason with one year of eligibility to go.
That’s an astonishing success rate. Novak and his staff should get rings if NIU wins the MAC.