Michigan looks like Big Ten's best

ESPN.com's Mel Kiper breaks down half of the Big Ten and picks Michigan to win the conference title.

Originally Published: March 16, 2004
By Mel Kiper Jr. | Special to ESPN Insider
Editor's Note: ESPN.com's Mel Kiper Jr. opens his conference overviews with a breakdown of the first half of the Big Ten (teams listed alphabetically).

Illinois Fighting Illini
Offense: The strength of the offense is the experience and leadership of sixth-year senior quarterback Jon Beutjer, who underwent back surgery last season and is healthy for 2004. Illinois also has a good running back in sophomore E.B. Halsey, who is an all-purpose player with the ability to catch the ball and return kicks and who would have been the Big Ten Freshman of the Year had he not injured his knee late in the season. Senior wide receiver Mark Kornfeld is a good possession receiver and Ronnie Hurst returns after starting at wideout as a freshman last season. The offensive line is benefiting from several players coming off redshirt years and the staff is excited about Martin O'Donnell and Kevin Gage up front.
Defense: Illinois lacked depth on defense last year and because players were so fatigued they could not stop the run, finishing last in the conference and 111th in the nation allowing 224.3 yards per game. Brian Schaefering is back along the defensive front after missing all of last year due to injury and Mike O'Brien returns after tearing up his knee prior to the Missouri game, giving much-needed help to a group that struggled mightily last season. Former wide receiver Kelvin Hayden moved to cornerback after leading the team in receiving last year, and it says something about the state of the defense that the Illini are counting on a former wideout and defensive linemen who did not play last season to be their best players. But keep an eye on outside linebacker Matt Sinclair, who led the team in tackles last season.
Overall: The Illini were 1-11 last year after enduring all kinds of injuries -- 12 in-season surgeries and 17 regulars affected by injury -- and that one win came against Division I-AA Illinois State. They need dramatic improvement out of the defense if they hope to make any significant progress.

Mel Kiper Jr.

Football analyst
Mel Kiper has served as an NFL draft analyst for ESPN since 1984. He is a regular contributor on SportsCenter and ESPN Radio and writes weekly for ESPN Insider.