B1G 2013 // Illinois Cocktail Party Preview

Guess what time it is everyone? B1G 2013! That's right, we've gotten through basketball and a little bit of Spring football, and we are ready to spend the next twelve-ish weeks previewing every single team in the B1G. I believe this is the fourth year in a row OTE has gone with this format, and I think it's become kind of a beautiful monster - one that we all look forward to working on and discussing. Like always, we're going to go from worst to first from the previous year and look at all the nooks and crannies of our fair conference. We might even drop in a few nuggets for our soon-to-be-friends Maryland and Rutgers.

This week is Illinois week, and we will be starting with a Cocktail Party Preview. If you are unfamiliar with the Cocktail Party Preview, imagine this. You just got a job with a fancy pants new firm and you're asked to a Cocktail Party at your boss's house. Your boss asks you to step into his office and that's when you see it - ALL THE ILLINOIS GEAR. Chief Illiniwek is on the wall, the Block I covers on his clubs. Heck, he has Dick Butkus as his screen saver. Your mind is racing, "So, you went to Illinois?"

"Damn straight!" he replies, "You a fan?" Well, outside of at least not being a Northwestern alum (because they don't have bosses), you try to think of how to answer that question. I mean, what do you know about Illinois? That's where we come in. This is the quintessential guide to what you might need to know about Illinois in that situation. It's not the most in-depth, but it sure will get you by. As a matter of protocol, OTE felt that we should get an actual Illinois fan for this piece because, well, we're not sure Chad would have been nice enough. So everyone thank Robert from A Lion Eye for graciously dropping by to give us some no-nonsense knowledge on the Illini. Welcome to B1G 2012 2013 everyone!!! Should be a fun few months.

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About Last Season

The good news...

The season ended.

The white flag was waved. Morale must have improved because the beatings ended. First seasons with new coaches are usually awful in Champaign - Ron Turner (in 1997) and Ron Zook (in 2005) were both winless in the conference their first season, and Tim Beckman continued the tradition. And now it's finally behind us. Thank God.

The bad news...

The last of the Zook talent just departed for the NFL. Ron Zook's recruiting run from 2006 to 2009 was a thing of beauty, and once again, Illinois had more players drafted last weekend than any other Big Ten team. Problem is, after Zook took preseason January 1 bowl expectations in 2009 and turned them into a 3-9 season, recruiting fell apart. His 2010 and 2011 recruiting classes were maybe half as talented as his earlier classes, and the 2012 class he recruited before getting fired was maybe his weakest. Next year, linebacker Jonathan Brown will likely be drafted, but after that... I'm not sure who the next Illini draft pick will be. Might be several years.

On The Offensive Side Of The Ball

The good news...

Bill Cubit has arrived. And Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales are gone. When he was hired, Tim Beckman plucked two recruiting-focused position coaches away from two SEC programs (Billy Gonzales from LSU, Chris Beatty from Vandy) and made them co-offensive coordinators. Their recruiting was solid. QB Aaron Bailey is the best Illini recruit since 2009. Other four-stars like Caleb Day and Darius Mosely will likely make an immediate impact. But their offensive coordinating... wasn't solid. As in, 119th out of 120th in total yards, with only Maryland and their "all three of our quarterbacks are injured so we're starting a linebacker at QB on Saturday" issues finishing a spot below Illinois.

Beatty and Gonzales went back to being recruiting-focused position coaches (Beatty at Wisconsin, Gonzales at Mississippi State), and enter Bill Cubit. Cubit was fired as the head coach at Western Michigan, and Beckman hired him to clean up this offense. He has a lot of experience doing just that - he was the offensive coordinator at Missouri and Rutgers and Stanford before getting the Western Michigan head coaching job- and now it's his turn to try to put Humpty back together again. And he has some experienced players to utilize. Nathan Scheelhaase enters his fourth season as the starting quarterback, and tailback Donovonn Young looks like the perfect fit for Cubit's offense.

The bad news...

Humpty is shattered. The offensive line was a mess last year. The receivers were a mess. Tight ends disappeared. Tailbacks were OK, but had no room to run. And Nathan Scheelhaase had his worst season in his third season.

Which means that when Illini fans are setting goals for 2013, they're saying things like, "you know, if everything falls right, maybe we can climb up to, say, 8th or 9th in the conference in total yards. 8th or 9th - can you even dream it? I mean, if we pulled that off, we might actually WIN a conference game! Pinch me."

It's starts with the offensive line, but it will have to start without the top two linemen. Hugh Thornton was drafted by the Colts in the third round on Friday, and Graham Pocic signed a free agent deal with the Texans. So take last year's line - 111th nationally in sacks given up; 97th in rushing offense - and remove the two best players. Care to guess how that will go this fall?

The Defensive Side Of The Ball

The good news...

All in all, the defense wasn't that bad last year. I know that's crazy to say about a defense that gave up 281 points in conference games, but it's true. When the offense is consistently going 3-and-out on our own 12, and the punt is returned to the 43, it's really hard as a defense to keep points off the board. It's really somewhat unfair what they had to face. Time of possession always favored our opponents. We punted more than six times per game. We consistently gave up horrible field position with turnovers. With all of that, the defense finished a respectable 52nd in yards allowed.

The bad news...

Three of those defensive players were drafted on Saturday. And five others are now gone. So while last year showed some potential on defense (at least when compared to the offense), most of those players are now gone. With one junior leaving early from the defensive line (Akeem Spence, drafted by Tampa Bay) and another junior switching to offense (Steve Hull, a safety who has seen his shoulder pop on 15 times, is switching to receiver so he won't have to tackle anyone again), we are basically replacing the entire defensive line and the entire secondary.

Did I mention that Zook's recruiting fell off the table in 2009, so the players we'll be using to replace the defensive line and secondary are mostly freshmen and sophomores?

On The Special Teams

The good news...

Junior Justin DuVernois was third in the Big Ten in punting last year, so he should have a positive junior campaign and hopefully a really great senior year. At kicker, last year's starter Nick Immekus is no longer with the team (left the program), but backup Taylor Zalewski handled kickoffs last year (and filled in when Immekus was injured, going 4-7 on field goals including a 54 yarder), so he should be able to put together a solid year.

The bad news...

Sitting down? Here's where the Illini rank nationally in punt return yards since Zook took over in 2005:

2012: 118th (25 punt return yards)
2011: 118th (24 punt return yards)
2010: 117th (60 punt return yards)
2009: 114th (50 punt return yards)
2008: 94th (117 punt return yards)
2007: 88th (177 punt return yards)
2006: 111th (116 punt return yards)
2005: 112th (72 punt return yards)

While not as bad, the numbers for kickoff returns are similar. Tim Beckman's staff has placed an emphasis on special teams, so there's hope the the numbers will go up this fall, but still, the fact that a team can't finish higher than 88th in eight seasons is as damning a statistic as you will see.

On The Schedule

The good news...

Wait, this is a serious question? The "good news" about a schedule for a team that has lost 14 consecutive Big Ten games? We're in "what does it matter" territory, yes? Play Indiana on the road or at home, we're still going to lose. Get Ohio State in Memorial Stadium instead of The Horseshoe and we'll lose by 29, not 37. So I really don't think there can be "good news" when it comes to the schedule. I only see L's no matter how it sets up.

The bad news...

We still have one more year of Ron Guenther, Ballsy Scheduler to endure. Quick trivia question: name the BCS Conference team with the toughest non-conference schedule since 2000. Did you say Ohio State? Alabama? Oregon? Nope - Illinois. For 19 years, Ron Guenther scheduled like he was being called a pansy by all of the other AD's at the lunch table. So his response was "oh yeah?? Well how about 12-0 Cincinnati AND 10-2 Missouri AND 8-4 Fresno State all in the same season!"

Hey, since I have you cornered at this cocktail party, and since this is my favorite topic, take a look at this list I have laminated in my wallet. It's the difference in non-conference scheduling at the two Big Ten universities in Illinois. From 2007 to 2011, Illinois didn't play a non-conference FBS team with a losing record. And Northwestern didn't play a non-conference FBS team with a winning record. Here's an extra copy of the lists - you can keep this:

The Illinois Streak
1. Ball State 2007 - 7-5
2. Missouri 2008 - 9-3
3. Louisiana-Lafayette 2008 - 6-6
4. Western Michigan 2008 - 9-3
5. Missouri 2009 - 8-4
6. Cincinnati 2009 - 12-0
7. Fresno State 2009 - 8-4
8. Missouri 2010 - 10-2
9. Northern Illinois 2010 - 10-2
10. Fresno State 2010 - 8-4
11. Arkansas State 2011 - 10-2
12. Arizona State 2011 - 6-6
13. Western Michigan 2011 - 7-5

The Northwestern Streak
1. Duke 2007 - 1-11
2. Eastern Michigan 2007 - 4-8
3. Syracuse 2008 - 3-9
4. Duke 2008 - 4-8
5. Ohio 2008 - 4-8
6. Eastern Michigan 2009 - 0-12
7. Syracuse 2009 - 4-8
8. Miami (OH) 2009 - 1-11
9. Vanderbilt 2010 - 2-10
10. Rice 2010 - 4-8
11. Central Michigan 2010 - 3-9
12. Boston College 2011 - 4-8
13. Army 2011 - 3-9
14. Rice 2011 - 4-8

So as you can see, one athletic director who cares about building his football program and schedules in a way that won't hinder that, and another who apparently thought his scheduling manhood was constantly being questioned.

Ron Guenther is gone now, and Mike Thomas has been the AD for the last 20 months. But Guenther's footballs schedules haven't run out yet. Thomas scheduled Miami (OH) this fall, but the other two spots were already filled by Guenther: Cincinnati and Washington. And if Guenther was still in charge, it wouldn't be Miami (OH) as the other opponent. He would have tried to schedule Alabama.

Hey - where are you going? I haven't even gotten to my 19 Point Plan On How To Rebuild Illini Football.

If You're Talking To An Illini Fan, Don't Mention:

Ron Guenther's scheduling, Bill Lemonnier, Ron Zook's special teams, the clip on the Amani Toomer punt return, Lou Tepper letting Minnesota score, the A-Train fumble, Josh Reed in the Sugar Bowl, a Fresno State offensive lineman catching a deflected two point conversion pass and falling forward in the endzone on the game's final play to lose at home to Fresno State 53-52.

Do Mention:

Red Grange and Dick Butkus being named two of the top 5 players in college football history by ESPN, being one of only 29 college football teams with two or more BCS appearances, Rocky Harvey's dive, David Williams down the east sideline, Juice's three third-downs at Ohio State, Brandon Lloyd got his foot down, the eight draft picks from the 2010 defense, Jeff George's two touchdowns in the final five minutes at USC, Ty Douthard in the snow, 519 rushing yards at Wrigley, Rooks down the sideline to beat Ohio State, and basketball.

Note: Again, special thanks to Robert for dropping by. If you're looking for a great place to catch up on everything Illini, check out his site: www.alioneye.com. It really is one of the nicest thing Illinois has going for it.

Join our team at OTE

Off Tackle Empire is looking for a writer to bring that unique Champaign flavor to our coverage. Are you an Illinois alum or fan who would like to join our staff of malcontents and ne'er do wells? Contact grahamfiller10@gmail.com if you are interested.

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MONDAY | Cocktail Party Preview

TUESDAY | Smartest Guys in the Room

WEDNESDAY | Illini Potluck

THURSDAY | Wildcard

FRIDAY | Keeping the Enemy Close

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