Illini bowl matchup vs. Gators?

  • Ron Zook shakes hands with Ohio State coach Jim Tressel after Illinois beat Ohio State 28-21 Nov. 10.

    Ron Zook shakes hands with Ohio State coach Jim Tressel after Illinois beat Ohio State 28-21 Nov. 10. Associated Press

Published11/19/2007 5:10 AM

And on the 115th day, Ron Zook rested.

After going full-speed since July 27, one week before No. 18 Illinois opened fall practice for its 9-3 season, the architect of the nation's most dramatically improved program spent most of Sunday at his comfortable southwest Champaign home.


"I want to sit down a little this afternoon," said Zook, outlining a rare opportunity to relax with his wife and their two daughters.

Zook, who still handled his usual Sunday morning business at Memorial Stadium, will take his first full day off on Thanksgiving.

But that's about all the down time he and his coaching staff will get until early January.

They're hitting the recruiting road again today as they take advantage of their last two evaluation days of the fall.

Then there's this little matter of preparing for Illinois' first bowl game in six years.

"The next month or so will be two full-time jobs," Zook said.

But which bowl will the Illini attend? Zook indicated Sunday that the Capital One Bowl is the "one thing everyone's talking about."

That Jan. 1 game, which kicks off at noon on ABC7 Chicago, pairs the Big Ten's top non-BCS team with the SEC's top non-BCS team.

If one uses this week's Bowl Championship Series rankings as a guide, then Illinois and Florida at the moment are destined to collide in Orlando.

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Florida, of course, fired Zook from his first head-coaching job with four games remaining in the 2004 season.

"I hardly even thought about (facing Florida)," Zook said with a chuckle. "I'm not a vindictive guy. Bowls are really for the families and for the players."

While Zook's certainly understating his desire to face the Gators, it might not become a reality.

The Illini jumped two spots to No. 17 in the Bowl Championship Series standings released Sunday. That being the case, it seems unllkely the Illini will be chopped from the BCS list when when officials pare their postseason pool Tuesday.

Illinois' BCS chances could remain alive all the way until the ACC title game on Dec. 1, especially since BCS officials announced Sunday that it would expand its selection pool to the Top 18 if necessary.

"A lot of things have to happen for us to get pulled up (to a BCS bowl)," Zook said.

In the meantime, here's what the Illini will do before bowl preparation becomes a reality:


• Meet with Mendenhall: With junior running back Rashard Mendenhall becoming a big blip on the NFL radar, Zook plans to sit down with Mendenhall and his mother, Sibyl, after Thanksgiving break.

Mendenhall, who rushed for 1,526 yards and 18 total touchdowns this season, could be named the Big Ten's Offensive Player of the Year when the all-league teams are announced today.

"I think he's going to be at the next level eventually, whether it's this year or next year," Zook said. "He's going to be there. I'll give him the pros and cons."

On the "con" side, Zook might mention how Mendenhall would be on the preseason short list for the 2008 Heisman Trophy.

• Awards roll in: The Big Ten Network will unveil the all-league teams at 9 p.m. today.

In addition to Mendenhall's Offensive Player of the Year possibility, Zook seems the favorite to be named Dave McClain Coach of the Year, and receiver Arrelious Benn could earn Freshman of the Year honors.

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