Another wonderful season of B1G football is about to start, but for some in the Midwest there are questions about the Orange and Blue. Illinois is now in it's third year under head coach Tim Beckman, and people are beginning to wonder what he can really bring to Champaign. This is the best team so far in his tenure, but will it get him to a bowl game? Or will it even save his job?
I. Case History/Opening Statement
A. Case History
It took less than a year for Tim Beckman to find himself in a worse position than when he started. A two-win season saw his stock fall to a perilous low. It's not often you hear talk of a first-year coach losing his job, but when you're closest B1G loss is against Purdue by a field goal, some people get understandably impatient.
Now that you know that, it might not sound as crazy when I tell you that 2013 was a success.
Beckman accomplished what he set out to do, which, in this case, was to improve. Two wins became four wins, this time beating Purdue by four points. New offensive coordinator Bill Cubit transformed the offense, going from 296.7 yards per game in 2012 (122nd in the country), to 426.7 yards in 2013 (46th).
But where the offense improved, the defense went backwards. They ended the season ranked 112th by allowing an average of 481.5 yards per game. It was the effect of poor recruiting years before -- Only two seniors were on the starting eleven, and the majority of the secondary were underclassmen.
Four-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhause led the Illini to a 3-1 record non-con record, including a 50-14 stomping of Cincinnati, but once B1G play began, it all went downhill, fast. It wasn't until the second-to-last week of the season when Illinois's schedule finally eased up allowing the 20-game-long -- TWENTY-GAME-LONG -- B1G losing streak come to an end against Purdue. Then we lost to Northwestern.
It wasn't always pretty, but Beckman got past another year of depthless depth charts. The Illini started out well, went through a difficult portion of the schedule, and then in the final five games, barring the Ohio State game, showed signs of life and competition.
B. Opening Statement
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you are looking at a much improved Fighting Illini. And yes, Beckman's goal is the same this year as it was last year. Every coach in the country is trying to enhance his team, but Beckman's career depends on it. A bad season, or even a stale 4-8 season, could see the end of his reign. At 5-7, he would need some close games or a strong recruiting class. At 6-6, he's likely safe.
The offense must first and foremost replace Scheelhause. And although the current QB competition has not been won, the role looks to go to Wes Lunt, a 4-star recruit who transferred in from Oklahoma State. He has a arm that can open up the offense, and a year of sitting on the bench (per transfer rules) to learn the system. If you're looking for the next B1G quarterback, this is him.
The offensive line and the running backs are the two strongest position groups with both bring back tons of experience from the year before. RB Josh Ferguson is the perfect weapon out of the backfield. He's a quick, elusive and durable back who can just as easily run between the tackles as he can catch passes in open space. Honestly, he could have the highest all-purpose yards among B1G RBs. I'm not kidding. The other running back, Donovonn Young, is a hammer that isn't afraid to bust your stupid purple helmet for trying to tackle him.
The O-Line consists of four players who started almost every game last season and one . Senior LT Michael Heitz has a chance for an NFL future, but right now, I just want a solid 2014. The four best linemen are going to be able to push people around, but what there is an frighteningly scary question of depth. It's not that those other players are worthless, they just have little to no experience.
In all honesty, this offense will be fine. I'm not quite willing to shout from the mountaintops about them, but I will subtly state in a normal-sized room that they will be above average. It's the defense that needs work.
The D-Line was filled with holes, but new juco bandaids might be the dam to calm the waters. When the front seven gives up nearly six yards per rush, you know things are bad and they aren't going to magically get fixed by experience alone. Although jucos do provide more immediate fixes, they never seem to fully understand the schemes until halfway through the season.
Mason Monheim is our lone returning linebacker. He was consistently one of the best tacklers on the team last year, and was listed on some of those vitally important Preseason Watch Lists.
Earl Thomas III plays at the STAR position, which is a hybrid safety/linebacker. He good speed and coverage, and has the body type to lay some lumber. He may be one of the most important players on defense.
The secondary last year was young, so young in fact, that they almost all return this year. Hopefully, they've learned from their mistakes last year (bad positioning and tackling) and can stop some of the long touchdowns they allowed.
All in all, what worries me on the defense isn't so much the players, but the actual coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Tim Banks hasn't done anything yet as to make himself look good. This defense has been getting worse ever since he got here, but he has one more year to prove his worth.
A. What We've Written about Illinois This Offseason
- B1G 2014 // Illinois Cocktail Party Preview
- B1G 2014 // Illinois Smartest Guy in the Room: In Defense of Tim Beckman Edition
- B1G 2014 // Illinois Potluck: Part 1 & Part 2
- B1G 2014 // Hate through the Pity
- Fighting Illini Reveal New Rebrand
- The Fighting Illini and Their Place in the B1G
B. What We Can Learn from Pop Culture
I admit having trouble find the perfect pop culture example. I thought about going with some kind of Shark Week reference, but it's too main stream. There was a moment when the Guardians of the Galaxy sounded possible -- no one expected that movie to perform that well at the box office a year ago but surprised nonetheless -- but the Illini have yet to make that jump, so I can't compare to Marvel's recent success just yet.
I finally settled on a TV character who couldn't have nice things: Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad. Throughout the show, Jesse can't get out of the gutter he's stuck in. He had the potential to do great things but wasn't able to get out ahead of his current predicament. This is the Illini. They live close to a major city and have a history of success yet continually they are struggling to correct their most recent situation. Not only that, but people really felt sorry for Jesse. I know you all feel sorry for Illinois -- you make fun of it all the time.
III. Pending Docket
This is a manageable schedule compared to last year's salvo. Three of the non-con games should be easy wins, and even the game in Seattle against Washington isn't a automatic loss. Anything less than finishing 3-1 from those starting games and you know that the season has taken an early stumble. The road schedule is difficult, few can argue that, but the home slate has two or maybe three wins waiting for the Illini. A win over Penn State or Iowa will be considered an upset, but it will be required if they want to go bowling.
|Aug. 30||vs. Youngstown State|
|Sept. 6||vs. Western Kentucky|
|Sept. 13||@ Washington|
|Sept. 20||vs. Texas State|
|Sept. 27||@ Nebraska|
|Oct. 4||vs. Purdue|
|Oct. 11||@ Wisconsin|
|Oct. 25||vs. Minnesota|
|Nov. 1||@ Ohio State|
|Nov. 15||vs. Iowa|
|Nov. 22||vs. Penn State|
|Nov. 29||@ Northwestern|
IV. Emotional Plea
Every year, in every sport, the preseason is filled with opinions about which teams will be good or not, and every year we find out that we know nothing. (Just as an example, only one person (Aaron Yorke) correctly predicted Michigan State's record last year.) Some good teams falter and some bad teams rise. It is one of the many reasons we watch.
Illinois is a team that will rise. There plenty of quality pieces in the offense, the experience and JUCOs should improve the defense to at least an average defense, and the home schedule is manageable. If all goes well, this could be one of the best surprises in the B1G, but we all know that Illinois develops problems when things start to look good. There is hope and trepidation. Should I trust Tim Beckman? I believe you should.
V. The Verdict
I tried my best, but OTE writers are stuck in the past. Only one person predicted the Illini to be bowl eligible. And that was me. But their prognostications don't matter, only the actual results matter. Tim Beckman is going to improve this team one more time, but the ultimate question remains whether it will be enough. My personal feelings are excited and nervous, but either way, it should be fun to watch.
|Aaron Yorke||4-8 (1-7)|
|Aaron Rench||6-6 (3-5)|
|Green Akers||4-8 (1-7)|
|Brian Gillis||3-9 (1-7)|
|DJ Carver||3-9 (1-7)|
|MC ClapYoHandz||4-8 (1-7)|
|Candystripes for Breakfast||4-8 (1-7)|
|Graham Filler||5-7 (2-6)|
|Jesse Collins||5-7 (2-6)|
|Mike Jones||4-8 (1-7)|
|OTE Average||4.21-7.78 (1.5-6.5)|