Illinois State's Hancock Stadium now sparkles after a $25 million renovation and has a top team to go with it.
One national Football Championship Subdivision poll has the Redbirds as high as 13th, but in the Missouri Valley Football Conference they're projected no better than fourth behind defending league and national champion North Dakota State.
Despite having several holes to fill on defense, the Redbirds still figure to be competitive under fifth year coach Brock Spack, the former Purdue defensive coordinator who's had four straight winning seasons. The Redbirds (9-4, 5-3) were third in the MVFC last year and went two deep in the FCS playoffs before falling to Eastern Washington.
"I think this team is very, very focused and mature for a young team," Spack said. "This team is going to be together for a while. We have some very good seniors, but we (also) have some good young players."
The revamped stadium should serve as perfect backdrop for defensive end Colton Underwood.
Underwood led the conference in sacks and lost yardage in 2012 and is among nominees for the Buck Buchanan Award, giving annually to FCS' top defensive player.
But Spack needs to find replacements for six other defensive starters, including most of the front line.
On offense, Iowa State transfer Jared Barnett won a three-man battle as starting quarterback. He started 10 games over two seasons with the Cyclones before switching to Illinois State last spring. The Redbirds open Aug. 29 at Ball State.
Other Illinois teams to watch:
EASTERN ILLINOIS: Head coach Dino Babers guided the Panthers (7-5, 6-1) to an Ohio Valley title in his first season and the Panthers are favored for another. Ranked as high as 19th in national FCS polls, Eastern Illinois returns one of the nation's leading offensive combos in quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and receiver Eric Lora. Garoppolo was 331-of-540 for 31 touchdowns and a OVC single-season record of 3,823 yards. Lora, OVC offensive player of the year and consensus All-America, set a single-season FCS record with 136 catches and 1,664 yards, the fourth highest in FCS history. But only three other starters are back on offense. The defense features seven returning starters, including defensive back Pat Wertz and safety Nick Beard. Both were all-OVC selections. The Panthers kick off Aug. 31 at San Diego State.
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS: The Salukis (6-5, 5-3) have only seven players with extensive experience back from a team that finished third in the MVFC. Ten more had some stating time. Junior tight end MyCole Pruitt had 49 receptions for 577 yards and four touchdowns and earned second team All-America honors. Quarterback Kory Faulkner returns after piling up 1,865 passing yards -- the 12th highest in school history. Southern Illinois, picked for seventh in the 10-team MVFC, opens Aug. 31 at Illinois.
WESTERN ILLINOIS: First-year coach Bob Nielson hopes to rebuild a Leatherneck program that reached the NCAA playoffs as recently as 2010. Nielson, former Minnesota-Duluth head coach, has 15 returning starters from a team that went 3-8 overall, 1-7 in the MVFC. Two were all-MFVC: sophomore linebacker J.J. Raffelson (105 tackles) and senior offensive lineman Jimmy Holtschlag. Also back is running back Nikko Watson, who rushed for 1,145 yards and four touchdowns, and wide receiver Fredson Salomon (374 yards, two touchdowns). The Leathernecks kick off Aug. 29 at home against Hampton. The schedule includes a Sept. 14 non-conference game at Minnesota.