So, how bad is it really?
There are 125 FBS schools, Illinois begins the season with a #99 Saragin ranking. 6 FCS schools start ahead of the Illini, including "juggernauts" Montana St, Georgia Southern and Eastern Washington. Not only is there a chance Illinois could finish in the Big Ten basement back to back years, they could end up the worst team in all of the Power 5 conferences (ACC, SEC, B1G, Big 12 & Pac 12). Only the Colorado Buffalo's start the year ranked lower, and they should be improved. It's BAD
How good is Wes Lunt?
The 6-5, 215 lb Lunt has the potential to be the best QB at Illinois since Jeff George. In high school, Lunt guided Rochester to consecutive IHSA 4A titles in 2020 and 2011, setting a title game record with 590 yards and 4 TD's in 2011. Went to Oklahoma St where he was the opening day starter as a true freshman. In his first road start, at Arizona, Lunt put up 436 yards and 4 TD's. Lost the starting job to injuries and decided he wanted to be closer to home, picking Illinois. He will have to sit out this season but will have 3 years of eligibility left.
Any other recruits to get excited about?
I really like 6'3, 180 lb WR Geronimo Allison, who could be a real find. A Florida kid, had grade problems in high school, finally saw the field his senior year and had a breakout season. Went to Iowa Western C.C., helping them to a national title before transferring to Illinois. 6'0, 188 lb RB Matt Domer from Chicago Mt. Carmel looks to be a nasty piece of business and could really excel with defenses keying on Lunt. Also like 6'4, 280 lb Nick Allegretti, a beast of a tackle from Franfort, Il
Can Tim Beckman survive and get to Lunt?
Year one was a flat out nightmare. Most of Becks staff from Toledo passed on following him to Illinois. The Penn St. recruiting fiasco. Finding out the reason ASU zipped down the field was because half the defense was running one system while the other half had been signaled to audible to another. Having co-offensive coordinators, one calling 1st and 2nd downs and the other 3rd down. Chewing tobacco on the sideline, then getting run over by an official and penalized. And, oh yeah, a 2-10 season filled with blow outs. It will take some luck to win more than 2 this year. After SIU (who will come in smelling blood and give the Illini all they want) it gets pretty hopeless. If the Illini have a chance to be favored the rest of the season, it will be against Miami of Ohio. And that's only because it's in Champaign. After that it's slim pickens. It's possible they could sneak a win at Penn St. or at Purdue but it would be a pretty big upset. Illinois fans aren't known for their patience, the boo birds will be out in force midway through the season. If attendance continues to fall, it'll be a tough sell to bring Beckman back.
Does Mike Thomas want Beckman to succeed?
Over the winter WSCR's Dan Bernstein reported that Thomas was ready to cut bait, and went to the board for approval to fire Beckman. He was told that they didn't want another embarrassing search filled with leaks & rejections. He could go after one big name candidate, keep it quiet and if rejected, that was it. Obviously he was told no. So Thomas is saying the right things and supporting Beckman. But you have to wonder if he isn't going home, kissing the wife & kids then sneaking out to the shed after supper, sharpening that axe with a crazed look & maniacal laugh, dreaming of a 1-11 season.
Root for mediocrity or nuclear meltdown?
In a perfect world, and I'm talking about one where it rains doughnuts & girls buy guys beer, Illinois goes 6-6 and to the Legal Zoom Bowl. That would take going 4-0 nonconference and, somehow , finding two Big Ten wins. That, plus the arrival of Wes Lunt to Champaign, gives us year three of the Tim Beckman era. However, last second win over the FCS Salukis followed by 11 losses clears the way for a house cleaning. We learned the hard truth that, even being a Big Ten job, Illinois can't pull the coaches it used to. A NFL arm like Lunt's should change that.
How soon will Nathan Scheelhaase get the hook?
Scheelhaase is one of my favorite Illini in a long time. One of the nicest guys in the Big Ten, heck maybe nation. Tim Tebow could learn a lot about how to be a Christian athlete without inflaming the entire nation from him. All that being said, last season was pretty rough and you have to wonder what his body has left. After averaging over 2700 total yards & 20 TD's his first two season, Scheelhaase had trouble staying on the field with injuries and ineffectiveness last season. His numbers fell to 1664 total yards and only 8 TD's. Plus, Illinois is looking at a possible (if not probable) 1-3 record going into the Big Ten opener at Nebraska. Rule #1 in the "in case of fire" coaches handbook is switch quarterbacks and Becks now has Aaron Bailey to go to. My guess is Scheelhaase makes it through the Nebraska game(with some appearances by Reilly O'Toole) and mentors Bailey the rest of the way.
What if Aaron Bailey can play?
Got to figure at some point (probably sooner than later) Aaron Bailey is going to see some time behind center. What happens if he has success? Transfer Wes Lunt has been, all but given, the keys to the offense in 2014. But the 6-2, 220 lb Bailey comes in with some impressive accolades of his own, winning an 8A IHSA title in 2011 for Bolingbrook. And, Rivals had him ranked #9 in the nation at QB even after an injury forced to miss much of his senior year. At this point a QB controversy is a problem Illinois would love to have but this could get nasty, I'm sure both were promised playing time to lure them to a team in full blown desperation mode. Bailey is athletic enough to play a different position but how willing will he be and how willing should he be if he excels this fall?
How low will it go?
5 years ago, fresh off a 9-4 Rose Bowl season, Illinois averaged 61,707. As the losses have mounted up, that number has fallen every year since, plummeting to 45,564 last year. The question is, have they reached rock bottom? Are they at the point where the students, alumni & tailgaters are going to come regardless of record or has 5 straight years of disappointment and 14 consecutive Big Ten losses turned off even the hardcore fans? Illinois has only averaged less than 40,000 once since 1971, when the Illini averaged 39,590 in 1998 and went 3-8 in Ron Turners 2nd season as coach. With the economy taking its toll all across the sports world, combined with the flood of big screen TV's & surround sound keeping more fans home, it's going to be close.
This season looks like a train wreck waiting to happen, so why bother?
Because there's not a much better way to kick off a fall afternoon than tossing a ball outside of Memorial Stadium, drinking a beer while flipping burgers or brats. Because of the Marching Illini, The I-Block and the 3 in 1. Because it's Big Ten football in our backyard. While It's not the level of the SEC, it's not as far off as the "experts" are making it. Plus as the saying goes, we can read & write, count to 10 and don't date within our own gene pool. (trade offs kids) Because the Orange. Because the Blue. Forget about the "Chicago's Big Ten Team" & "Our State Our Team" nonsense, we are Illini Nation. We've survived Lou Tepper, Ron Turner & the Zooker... we can sure as Hell survive Tim Beckman.