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Illini are puzzling bunch

Sophomore Nathan Scheelhaase gives Illini skilled smart quarterback build around. | Seth Perlman~AP

Sophomore Nathan Scheelhaase gives the Illini a skilled and smart quarterback to build around. | Seth Perlman~AP

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Time: 2:30 p.m. Saturday, BTN, 560-AM.
2010 records: Arkansas State 4-8; Illinois 7-6.
The line: Illinois by 21. Gould’s pick: Illinois 41-24.

Updated: November 5, 2011 1:20PM

If you want calm and steady growth on your emotional investment, play the stock market.

If you prefer the excitement of wild, unpredictable swings, follow Illinois football.

In the last 10 years, one team in America has gone to two BCS bowls and suffered through two double-digit-loss seasons: The Fighting Illini.

It’s no wonder that even in its Downstate homeland, where Illinois is expecting a crowd of about 45,000 at 60,000-seat Memorial Stadium for its opener against Arkansas State on Saturday, people are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

Bullish on Illinois? There are signs. Sophomore Nathan Scheelhaase is skilled and smart. The two coordinators, Paul Petrino (offense) and Vic Koenning (defense), are good enough to be successful anywhere. And while the cupboard isn’t overstocked, Illinois has enough athletes, plus eight home games.

Bearish on Illinois? An injury to Scheelhaase would be devastating. Coach Ron Zook won’t have retired athletic director Ron Guenther reminding him to let Petrino and Koenning do their jobs. The defensive front seven must prove it can hold up its end of the deal.

And it’s Illinois, which went 1-11 in 2003, two years after playing in the Sugar Bowl, and 2-10 in 2006, the year before it went to the Rose Bowl.

On the eve of Illinois’ 49-17 loss to USC in Pasadena, I asked Zook, who had gone from a pair of two-win seasons to the Rose Bowl in his third year, if he was worried about setting the bar too high too early.

“What do you want me to do?” Zook replied. “Tell them no and I’ll take it the next time?”

Great expectations˜and a 3-9 record almost cost Zook his job two years later, though. And Zook acknowledged recently that the Illini got ahead of themselves.

“One of the things that hurt us the most was going to the Rose Bowl our third year,” he said. “As much as we tried to tell [the players] we’re not there yet, they were hearing but they weren’t listening. We regressed. We probably had a better team on paper the next two years. We almost had to start over. That’s what last year was, attitude-wise.”

And where are the Illini now?

They have an offense with large potential and a nice schedule. If Koenning can plug the leaks on defense as well as he did for a good chunk of 2010, Illinois could be in for a good ride.

That nice schedule comes with a burden, though. Illinois, which opens with five consecutive home games, needs to start fast. At least 4-1, preferably 5-0, to get where it wants to go — which is more wins than last year’s 7-6.

That’s why the opener Saturday is important even though no one will be dancing on Green Street even if the Illini stomp Arkansas State.

On offense, Scheelhaase needs to pull the right triggers. On defense, the Illini need to master the steps Koenning will need down the road.

Because Arizona State, Western Michigan and Northwestern — the last three opponents in the five-at-home start — are the kind of games that can get messy, especially for a team whose psyche can turn on a dime.

In addition, the Illini are trying to put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in 19 years.

In that light, having a little swagger through all the fear factors is easier said than done.

“I guess the politically correct answer is to be cautious and leery,” Scheelhaase said, “But honestly, we’re real confident we’ll go back to a bowl. We feel we have all the tools we need, all the pieces to the puzzle. Honestly, we’re pushing for a big bowl. That’s what we’re thinking. We’re reaching for the top. If you’re afraid to say your goals, you’ll never reach them. We’re not afraid at all.”

It’s only outsiders who need convincing.

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