RANTOUL — Illinois’ first bowl victory in 11 seasons and the second winning record in coach Ron Zook’s six years with the Illini meant little when it came to Sports Illustrated’s predictions of the Big Ten Conference football race this fall.

 

RANTOUL — Illinois’ first bowl victory in 11 seasons and the second winning record in coach Ron Zook’s six years with the Illini meant little when it came to Sports Illustrated’s predictions of the Big Ten Conference football race this fall.

In a report that hit the Internet on Tuesday, SI.com’s Stewart Mandel had Illinois finishing last in the six-team Leaders Division with a 1-7 conference mark and a 4-8 record overall. SI.com pointed to the loss of three players who jumped to the NFL draft.

According to the report, “The Illini improved from 3-9 to 7-6 last season, culminating in a Texas Bowl win over Baylor. But after three of its biggest standouts (RB Mikel Leshoure, LB Martez Wilson and DT Corey Liuget) left early for the NFL, Zook’s team could easily slip backward in 2011.’’

SI.com also said that Zook is back on the hot seat:

“What’s more, longtime ally A.D. Ron Guenther, who stood by Zook for six seasons despite a 28-45 record, retired in June.’’

The news made its way to the Camp Rantoul practice fields, leaving Zook only to chuckle.

“There’s nothing I can do about that,’’ he said. “That’s why they keep score and play the game. We’ll just go play and see what happens.’’

The lack of preseason respect comes from “the history of the team,’’ said Illini senior middle linebacker Ian Thomas. “We’re really working on changing that this year.’’

SI.com picked Wisconsin to finish first in the Leaders Division, followed by Penn State, Ohio State, Purdue, Indiana and Illinois. Nebraska was picked to win the Legends Division, followed by Michigan State, Iowa, Northwestern, Michigan and Minnesota.

Nebraska was picked to beat Wisconsin in the conference title game.
  
Injury report

Illini sophomore defensive tackle Akeem Spence walked off the field with a bag of ice strapped to a sprained left ankle suffered in practice Tuesday. Zook didn’t think it was serious, but he couldn’t say if Spence would go in both of the scheduled practices today.

“He’s smiling, so he’ll be all right,’’ Zook said.

The Illini defense already was concerned about a sore shoulder that limited Thomas. He returned to practice Tuesday, but the Illini likely want to make sure he’s healthy on opening day rather than getting him more banged up. Behind Thomas, freshmen Ralph Cooper and Henry Dickinson keep getting more snaps at midde linebacker. Sophomore Brandon Denmark is also there.

Senior wide receiver A.J. Jenkins wears a red jersey, signifying he’s off limits to contact because of a strained pectoral muscle, said team officials, who also said Jenkins’ wrist that required offseason surgery is healed.

Special teams

Zook said Illini freshman Justin DuVernois has a slight lead in the battle for starting punter over senior Matt Eller, a converted place-kicker. Consistency is a problem for both players, a pair of Florida products on scholarship. DuVernois picked Illinois over Miami (Fla.), Syracuse and Kansas. Eller began working on punting in the spring. …

Place-kicker Jason Reda, kick returner Pierre Thomas and punter Steve Weatherford were the first players named to the Illini’s all-decade team that includes players from the 11 seasons spanning 2000-10. A new position group will be announced each weekday through Aug. 26.

John Supinie can be reached at johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.