Sunday, July 1, 2012

Previewing Big Ten Football: Illinois

I've already wrote about Indiana football, and I believe Illinois will be just a step above them, but not by much. Surprisingly, last season was a disappointing one for the Illini. Much like their basketball brethren, they had a good start last season, followed by a collapse that led to the firing of Ron Zook. 

2011 Illinois Stats:

2011 Record: 7-6 (2-6)
Postseason: Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl - W 20-14
Head Coach: Tim Beckman (1st year at Illinois, 21-16 career record)
Returning Starters: 17 ( 7 offense, 8 defense, 2 special teams)

Let's begin with coaching. Tim Beckman is starting his 1st year as head coach of the Illini. He spent 3 years as head coach of the Toledo Rockets, where he went 21-16 and his biggest win was over Michigan, the only MAC school that can say that. Prior to his stint with the Toledo Rockets, Beckman was the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State University–Stillwater. After two seasons there, in which the Cowboys posted a record of 16-10. Before joining the Oklahoma State Cowboys, Beckman coached at Ohio State under Jim Tressel and at Bowling Green.

Presumably, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will be the returning starter this season. As a junior, he might be able to rebound from a poor showing last year. Reilly O'Toole came in during some games last season to try and spark the team and that didn't work. Now, remember as a freshman Scheelhaase had a great season but as a sophomore he only threw for 2,110 yards with a 13-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio. When Toole came in, he threw for 1 TD and 4 INTS, which is extremely poor. I anticipate Scheelhaase will have a better season, but with a brutal road schedule it is unlikely he'll be able to vault himself to the front of the pack in Big Ten quarterbacks.

That brings me to one problem that could plague them all season long, as that's a lack of receivers. Beckman is coming in and will install a more pro-style friendly offense, but every quarterback needs guys he can throw to. Gone is all-Big Ten receiver A.J. Jenkins and his 90 receptions season. Spencer Harris and Jon Davis return to the team and neither of them caught more than 30 balls last season. Ryan Lankford, Darius Millines, and Evan Wilson at tight end also figure to help in the passing game.

In the running game, depth is a huge problem. Gone are the top two rushers last year in Jason Ford and Troy Pollard (600 and 475 yards a piece) and both Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson have been out due to injuries. Scheelhaase does provide the team with a legitimate rushing threat, but if they're going with a pro-style offense, the chances might be more limited.  The offensive line was porous at best last season and they had David Diehl from the New York Giants come in and give them tips during spring.. I'd keep an eye out on the situation throughout the season and see if they've picked up any lasting tips from the two-time Super Bowl champ.

Defensively, they could be a solid unit despite losing DE Whitney Mercilus and his Big Ten best 16 sacks. Johnathan Brown will be back at linebacker as well as DT Akeem Spence. Look for CB Terry Hawthorne to anchor the secondary this season as their safety position is in major flux.

Illinois doesn't have to win an 11-team conference to get to the Rose Bowl; it only has to win in a five-team race this season to have get to the Big Ten title game and the team is in place to do it. Ohio State is ineligible to play in the championship and Indiana stinks. Penn State is still a hot mess and Purdue, while fine, is still Purdue. They have an outside chance to do well, but an extreme outside chance.

Illinois Predictions:
Record: 5-7
Big Ten Finish: 11th
Ability To Compete With Top Teams: Very Small
Upset Status: Small
Bowl Status: None

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