Don't mention to Illinois football coach Ron Zook that his team enters the season highly ranked. It doesn't mean anything to him, not considering the way the Illini finished last season. After reaching the Rose Bowl, Illinois ran into Pac-10 champion Southern California and got blasted, 49-17.
More than eight months after that game, Zook has found a way to turn it into a positive, using it as a way to bring his players back to the reality of the 2008 season.
"It's like I tell our players, you're only as good as your last game," Zook said. "In our last game, we weren't very good. So we still have a ways to go. That's the one thing we stressed from our very first meeting. We made some progress, and I want them to be proud of that. I want them to feel good about that, but on the same token, we still have a ways to go."
The Illini get a chance to see just how far they have come on Saturday when they face Missouri in St. Louis to open the season. Unlike last year, when the matchup was viewed as merely a battle between two BCS conference teams, a rarity in the first weekend of the season, both teams enter the season ranked in both polls, making the restored rivalry a glamour game nationally.
The result is excitement for fans, players and television crews, but for the coaches that excitement is tempered by the difficulty of having to play one of its best games of the season with players that have no experience facing anyone other than themselves.
"The positives, if there are positives, are obviously (that) you know exactly where you are," Zook said. "When you play a team the caliber of Missouri, it's going to give you an opportunity to know exactly where your program is and the things you have to work on."
But, Zook admitted he has noticed his players have practiced with more enthusiasm during camp because of this opening game.
"I think our practice has probably been a little bit more spirited," he said. "When you go to camp, you don't worry about one game, you prepare for the season. But, you always have that game in the back of your mind. It's a great challenge and a great opportunity. Our guys, I think, are really enjoying the fact of being able to compete against a top team like Missouri."
Zook spent little time talking about the Missouri offense compared to his concerns with the Tigers' less heralded defense. Although offensive stars Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin have received most of the preseason attention, Missouri's defense is sure to return nine starters in the opening game. A 10th, linebacker Van Alexander, is listed as doubtful for this game by Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who said a decision on Alexander will be made later in the week.
"They've got (almost) everybody back (from) a defense that was really pretty good," Zook said. "They were able to stymie people last year and they got better and better as the year went along, which really added to the success of their team."
Whether the Illini improves against the Missouri defense depends on whether or not Illinois can answer the biggest offensive question either team faces entering the season: the running game.
A year ago, Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 1,681 yards to power the Illini's ground game. This year, Mendenhall is in the NFL as the first-round selection of the Pittsburgh Steelers, leaving the void to be filled by Daniel Dufrene and a host of other running backs whom both Zook and quarterback Juice Williams have said could contribute to the offense.
"We're not unlike where we were a year ago today," Zook said. "We weren't sure where we were going to be. We had a chance to be a pretty good running team, we felt like the opportunity was there. We knew Rashard had a bunch of God-given ability, but he hadn't done it yet.
"We have a pretty good feel for what Daniel can do, we have a pretty good feel for what Mikel (LeShoure) can do and Troy (Pollard). Jason Ford was the last guy that we hadn't seen before camp. I don't (see) at this point one guy taking it over, but if they do, that's great."
Whether the Illini answer their biggest question or not, Zook said Saturday will be the first chance to see the results of a process that began shortly after Illinois walked off the field in Pasadena, Calif.
"We told them in the very first meeting in January that everything we do is to try to win games," Zook said. "Whether it be the workouts, whether it be camp, whether it be lifting, the meetings that we have, whatever it is, it's just to try to win games. That opportunity starts Saturday night."
It's also a chance to see just how different the two teams are after going from unknown entities to nationally ranked teams with key players back and the expectations that come with that.
The Illini hope to avoid mistakes, but if they give up five turnovers and allow a touchdown on a punt return like they did in last season's 40-34 Missouri victory, Illinois' improvement will be the last thing Zook wants to talk about.
"Players are usually better as juniors and seniors than they are as freshmen and sophomores," he said. "I think we are a better team (than last year), but none of that matters if we don't do the things necessary to win a football game."