May has arrived, which means we're a little bit closer to the start of the 2011 season.
I'll be breaking down each team's schedule in the coming days. Let's kick things off with Illinois.
Nonconference opponents (with 2010 records)
Sept. 3: Arkansas State (4-8)
Sept. 10: South Dakota State (5-6)
Sept. 17: Arizona State (6-6)
Sept. 24: Western Michigan (6-6)
Leaders division games
Oct. 8: at Indiana
Oct. 15: Ohio State
Oct. 22: at Purdue
Oct. 29: at Penn State
Nov. 19: Wisconsin
Oct. 1: Northwestern (protected)
Nov. 12: Michigan
Nov. 26: at Minnesota
Gut-check game: Ohio State. Missouri mercifully exits the schedule, and Illinois finally has a fairly favorable opening slate with five consecutive home games and six of the first seven in Champaign. The Illini very well could be 6-0 heading into the matchup with Ohio State, a team they typically play tough. But Ohio State remains the barometer in the Big Ten, so we should learn a lot about Illinois.
Trap game: Oct. 22 at Purdue. This game falls between the Ohio State clash and a visit to Penn State, where Illinois won for the first time in team history last season. The Boilers boast playmakers and could be a much improved team. There also might be some lingering hard feelings from last year's blowout loss to Illinois in Champaign.
Snoozer: South Dakota State. The South Dakota schools seem to give Minnesota fits, but Illinois should be able to handle this Week 2 matchup and enter an intriguing test against Arizona State at 2-0.
Non-con challenge: The hype machine seems to be cranked up for Arizona State, a team that likely will enter the season in the Top 25. Illinois gets the Sun Devils at home, but this provides a tough test for an Illini team that has to fill some big holes on defense.
Key stretch: The month of October likely will determine Illinois' season, as the Illini play four consecutive Leaders division opponents (Indiana, Ohio State, Purdue and Penn State). Three games are on the road and the lone home contest comes against Ohio State, so Illinois will be put to the test.
Analysis: After some odd scheduling the past few seasons, Illinois finally gets a slate that sets up well. The Illini play eight home games and make only one trip to a team that reached a bowl game in 2010 (Penn State). It's vital for Illinois to get through growing pains in the nonconference portion and build some confidence for the Big Ten slate. I could see Illinois starting 5-0 or dropping games to both Arizona State and Northwestern. The Illini host some of their more challenging opponents -- Arizona State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin -- so their ability to defend their home turf will be huge.