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Top 25 countdown

Times Staff Writer

The Times’ Chris Dufresne unveils his preseason college football top 25, one day (and team) at a time:

No. 20 Illinois

An informal poll conducted by Rankman found Ron Zook to be the Big Ten coach most likely to crush a beer can on his head.

The man is intense . . . and he could use singing lessons. His mangling of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at a Cubs game at Wrigley Field last spring was Zook’s worst performance since last January’s rendering of “Take Me Out to the Rose Bowl.”

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Some people don’t like Zook. Didn’t like him at Florida; don’t like him at Illinois. His recruiting practices have raised both of Charlie Weis’ eyebrows, but so far no one has sniffed out anything egregious, so Illinois figures to be in the thick of this year’s wide-open-after Ohio State race in the Big Ten.

Getting back to the Rose Bowl will be more difficult, and airlines are charging for extra baggage. Last year’s trip required a stunning upset of unbeaten Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio State somehow getting back into the national title game, and the Rose Bowl jumping over better teams in the Bowl Championship Series ratings to maintain its Pac-10/Big Ten relationship.

Illinois finished 9-4 after a 49-17 drubbing by USC, and has lost star rusher Rashard Mendenhall and linebacker J Leman from last year’s team.

After 2-9 and 2-10 seasons in Zook’s first two years, Illinois is clearly back in the Red Grange business, but losing 24 lettermen makes forecasting more difficult.

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Juice Williams, who so brilliantly held the ball for eight minutes last Nov. 1 to run the clock out on Ohio State, returns at quarterback. And Arrelious Benn, a player Notre Dame wanted desperately, is back at receiver.

But how many clocks can Illinois run out again?

The Illini could go 9-4 or finish 7-6. The season opens against Missouri again, in St. Louis, while the Big Ten schedule includes games at Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin.

The game of the year, though, could be Nov. 15, when Ohio State comes to Champagne in hopes of avenging last year’s loss in Columbus.

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The countdown so far: No. 25, Notre Dame; 24. California; 23. Fresno State; 22. Florida State; 21. Rutgers; 20. Illinois.

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chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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