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2015 Closing Arguments: Illinois Fighting Illini

Perhaps Not As Terrible As You Assume?

A tragic loss to the All-B1G Flow Team.
A tragic loss to the All-B1G Flow Team.
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Despite finally dragging this team back to a bowl game, Tim Beckman's underwhelming body of work and offseason allegations of player mistreatment have cranked up the heat on the Illini head coach. The West lacks an insurmountable power in their way, but can the Illini even make themselves relevant?

I. Case History & Opening Statement

A. Case History

Coming off of a season in which Illinois' only way out of the conference sub-basement was standing upon the hapless head of Purdue, expectations were fairly tepid for Illinois last year (maybe, I don't know; I'm making most of this up). An early-season toe-stubbing against those same Boilermakers put Illinois' bowl hopes on life support, but a surprising upset of Minnesota allowed Dr. Reilly O'Toole to come to the rescue with the twin defibrillating paddles of season-closing wins over Penn State and Northwestern. The bowl game was a night to forget, as Illinois got pantsed by Louisiana Tech in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

Over the course of the season, the offense was dangerous at times and a star was born in true freshman WR Mikey Dudek, but a bad offensive line and injuries and inconsistency at QB kept that unit from its full potential. More importantly, the defense was once again a sieve despite fielding some decent individual talents, as a head coach who is theoretically a defensive guy managed to get less than the sum of his parts on that side of the ball.

thumpasaurus: Expectations for Illinois football are difficult to generalize due to the fallout from Tim Beckman's trainwreck of a 2012 season and his continual failure to win in the media. Improvement in the form of a solid offense and a viable kick return game arrived in 2013, but were offset by the cataclysmic run defense and its habit of allowing Maddenesque one-play drives on 80-yard untouched handoffs up the middle.

That the 2014 defense was actually improved by the end of the year is more than anything a testament to the historic ineptitude of its predecessor. In several ways, Tim Beckman is the antithesis of Ron Zook in that attrition has been dramatically reduced, grades have gone up and safeties have been recruited instead of converted from WR. More importantly, where Zook's teams often lost games they shouldn't have in mysterious, inexplicable ways, Beckman's team has stolen several games in a way reminiscent of a Ron Zook opponent.

B. Opening Statement

May it please the Commentariat, Andrew Kraszewski for appellant Illinois Football. This esteemed body is asked to consider this case with compassion in its heart and forgiveness on its conscience, for the comical blunderings of this program are well-known and legion. And yet, this claimant's case is certainly more meritorious than those which have come before it, and arguably some of those which will follow.

/an eyebrow is raised in Maryland's direction

This is, perhaps, understandable. We are, after all, speaking of a team which has wilted in the face of almost every decent team it's faced in Beckman's tenure. Let us pause, briefly, to laugh mockingly at Minnesota and Penn State (twice!). The head man himself seldom does or says anything to inspire confidence in his leadership, his stewardship of the program, or his common sense. A potentially tenure-ending abuse allegation looms over Champaign like one of the dense odor clouds the region is so well-known for.

And yet! This is a team which went bowling 9 short months ago. Lest we forget in our haste to have a laugh at the perenially downtrodden's expense, four teams from this conference cannot make that claim. And of those who went, a couple others would have been happy to get Illinois' result- a game that was at least in doubt at some point in the second half.

Moreover, this team returns plenty to be excited about. QB Wes Lunt, WR Geronimo Allison, and RB Josh Ferguson could be one of the better skill triads in the conference this fall, and that's without counting the anticipated October return of 1,000-yard frosh (will be soph) phenom Mikey Dudek. Even the defense has some reason for hope, with a ton of experience at all three levels- though losing DL Jihad Ward to a minor injury to open the season isn't a great start.

The last thing may be the most surprising: I wouldn't be at all surprised if Tim Beckman shows us there's more to him than meets the eye. Whatever his problems have been the last few seasons- and there have been plenty- he has to know this is his do-or-die season, so circle the wagons, adopt an us-vs-the-world mentality, and crack open whatever other tired metaphor suits you for this type of situation. If his players are anywhere near as supportive of him as their statements about the Cvijanovic accusations imply they are, they should rise to the occasion and deliver the kind of season Beckman needs to stabilize his tenure.

thumpasaurus: Back in June, Vegas offered opening lines for win/loss total in the 2015 football season, with Illinois predicted at 3.5. Yes, despite returning virtually the entire defense, most of the offense, having the same head coach and even entering their third year of having the same offensive and defensive coordinators and schemes, these Illini, so said Vegas, would be 2.5 wins worse. I ask you, where is the discrepancy? How, specifically, is Illinois worse than last year?

One theory is that Vegas surmises that Mike Dudek is worth 2.5 wins by himself. If this is true, Beckman deserves some credit for finding Dudek and being the only P5 coach to make him an offer. Based on the success of his replacements, Braxton Miller isn't worth 2.5 wins over a year, yet Tim Beckman found a receiver who is.

Another theory is that the loss of Aaron Bailey and Reilly O'Toole at QB have destroyed Wes Lunt's safety net, and this is 2.5 wins worth of damage. The extent to which Aaron Bailey will change the college football landscape has yet to be seen, but if Reilly O'Toole truly represents 2.5 wins, Tim Beckman deserves credit for bringing Bill Cubit to his staff, as O'Toole was not likely to be a factor in the Ron Zook regime.

This staff is largely the same as it's been for the last two seasons, under which improvement has been tangible on and off the field. If Beckman is truly the slave-driver he is alleged to be, then I suppose Ward and Dudek won't miss that many snaps, will they?

C. Timeline of Events

Sept. 4 Kent State
Sept. 12 Western Illinois
Sept. 19 at North Carolina
Sept. 26 Middle Tennessee
Oct. 3 Nebraska
Oct. 10 at Iowa
Oct 17 BYE
Oct. 24 Wisconsin
Oct 31 at Penn State
Nov 7 at Purdue
Nov 14 Ohio State
Nov. 21 at Minnesota
Nov 28 Northwestern

II. Discovery

A. What We've Written About Illinois This Offseason

Cocktail Party Preview

Personnel Files

Wildcard: How Did Illinois Get Here?

Illinois Potluck feat. Lasagna

Keeping The Enemy Close: Hate Friday

B. What We Can Learn From Pop Culture

When it comes down to it, there might not be anything Beckman can accomplish on the field this fall that's sure to save his job if the Cvijanovic brouhaha turns out as bad as it might.

Abuse your players, and there aren't many fanbases who are going to continue to feel connected to the program, especially with the bombshell of the women's basketball team going off as well.

III. Emotional Plea

There's strong, essentially uncontroverted precedent indicating Illinois can't have nice things. But surely whatever karmic imbalance is being corrected in central Illinois has leveled out by now, yes? This institution has suffered through Ron Zook, Tim Beckman, a racially charged abuse scandal in their women's basketball program, the Cvijanovic allegations...even when there's some sliver of hope like Mikey Dudek, the guy goes down with a blown ACL. Surely, a surprisingly great baseball season is insufficient recompense for what this fanbase has suffered. Admittedly, though, the relief sought here is not clear; were you to place yourselves in the shoes of an Illini fan, would you want Beckman to break through with 8 or 9 wins and ensure his longevity, or would you prefer the nail in the coffin to justify his ouster?

IV. The Verdict

The Off Tackle Empire staff does not exactly feel a lot of confidence in Tim Beckman and the Fighting Illini. The staff average is essentially 4-8 with one, maybe two conference wins. The highwater mark seems to be 5 wins with everyone more or less expecting Beckman to be without a job at the end of the year.

Writer Record
Aaron Yorke 3-9 (1-7)
Brian Gillis 4-8 (2-6)
MNWildcat 4-8 (1-7)
Ray Ransom 4-8 (1-7)
DJ Carver 3-9 (1-7)
Candystripes for Breakfast 3-9 (1-7)
babaoreally 5-7 (2-6)
Jesse Collins 5-7 (2-6)
Mike Jones 3-9 (1-7)
LincolnParkWildcat 5-7 (2-6)
GoForThree 4-8 (2-6)
Hilary Lee 3-9 (1-7)
InsertName 4-8 (1-7)
WhiteSpeedReceiver 5-7 (2-6)
Graham Filler 4-8 (1-7)
OTE Staff Average: 3.9-8.1 (1.2-6.8)