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Illini Football preview 2014, or six ways Tim Beckman still has a job next year

This could easily be the shortest listicle ever written, because all Tim Beckman has to do to keep his job as the University of Illinois head football coach is win six times. Six wins equals a bowl berth, and even though that bowl might be a D-list affair, like the added revenue will be more than enough to ensure Becks gets season four here in C-U.

Winning six games is attainable this year (believe it or not, see number one) for the Illini, but thats not all Timmy Football (how many different names can I come up with?) has to do to keep his job. But since six is such an important number for college football teams, I’ll use it to track what the Beckmonster’s gotta get right this season.

1. Win six games

I spoiled this one in the preamble, but Illinois has a schedule this year that lends itself a bowl berth. For fans tired of seeing nonconference schedules featuring the likes of tough major conference teams (Arizona State, Missouri, Cincinnati) and tenacious small conference teams (Louisiana Tech, Fresno State, Western Michigan), rest assured: this is a good rebuilding schedule. This is the last year of the Washington home-and-home match-up and the nonconference schedule from here out tends to favor the Orange and Blue.

August 30th, Youngstown State: Missouri Valley (FCS) team that has not reached the playoffs since 2006 and turned over one-third of its roster last season. Win.

September 6th, Western Kentucky: FBS team, but one that is under its third head coach in as many years and gearing up for its first year in Conference USA, likely not making Illinois a priority. Win.

September 14th, #25 Washington (in Seattle): A preseason ranking means the Huskies will likely have their way with Illini defense, especially after LB Mike Svetina broke his foot. Loss.

September 20th, Texas State: FBS team, but had just a 6-6 record last year and turned over half the roster. Win.

That gets Illinois to the conference schedule with a 3-1 record, which looks pretty familiar to how the team started its miserable 2013 season. The key difference is the experience Illinois carries over from last year and the (possibly) easier Big Ten slate (no Michigan State!) they face.

September 27th, at #22 Nebraska: It’s not going to be close, Ameer Abdullah could (but hopefully won’t) best the 225 yards he racked up against Illinois last year. Loss.

October 4th, Purdue: The Boilermakers could reasonably lose five (hell, maybe six [Purdue sucks, sorry, I’m not sorry, Seth Fein]) of their first six games. Number seven against Illinois, well I don’t give them much chance there either. Win.

October 11th, at #14 Wisconsin: Illinois has a tough, tough road schedule this year. Going to Madison is a big part of that. Loss.

October 25th, Minnesota (Homecoming): This game right here is the do-or-die game for bowl eligibility. Win and you’ve only one shy with beatable teams ahead; lose and those beatable teams don’t seem so beatable. Minnesota has struggled to maintain its momentum from year-to-year, so for the moment I’m leaning Illini. Win.

November 1st, at #6 Ohio State: Braxton Miller’s shoulder injury means there’s a chance Illinois makes it entertaining… but in the Dumb & Dumber “so you’re saying there’s a chance?” kinda way. Loss.

November 15th, Iowa: The Hawkeyes are returning some real quality this year and could make a push at Wisconsin and Nebraska for the top of the West division. Loss.

November 22nd, Penn State: Christian Hackenburg may be a Heisman finalist this year, which will make this a tough game, but with the experience gained through the season and the motivation of a bowl berth, I think Illinois tames the Nittany Lions. Win.

November 29th, at Northwestern: Last year’s match-up between these two teams was miserable, and though this year should be better, I don’t think Illini fans will be wearing smiles. Loss.

The key to bowl eligibility is Minnesota. Win that game and the team is going to feel good about the direction its trending. Lose to the Gophers and you’re likely mired in a four-game losing streak (Wisconsin through Iowa), which doesn’t bode well for the final two games of the year. So, if I’m Timmy B, I’ve got Minnesota circled on the white board and game tapes of Jerry Kill’s squad in the VCR already.

2. Let Lunt shine

Illinois has three state championship-winning quarterbacks on its roster — Wes Lunt, Reilly O’Toole, and Aaron Bailey. In what was the worst-kept attempt to keep a secret in all of Illinois, all three were listed as starting quarterbacks on the first depth chart. The Beckmeister has to keep his cards close to his chest, but even people who don’t watch Illini football knew that Lunt’s had to be the starter if Illinois is going to make a bowl. And so it was, on August 20th Lunt was named the number one guy for the opener.

Lunt was the starting quarterback at Oklahoma State his freshman year and seemed to be deserving of that designation, passing for 1108 yards and six touchdowns in five starts before an injury cost him his job. While under center, he threw 436 yards and 4 TDs against an Arizona team that went 8-5 — a lot better than Nathan Scheelhaase (who was good, I swear!) did against anyone that year.

This is Lunt’s team, simple as that. The young quarterback has been simmering quietly while redshirting, learning everything about the Illini and the weapons he’ll have to work with this year, and I can bet he’s ready to let everyone in Illinois know why he is the right pick as starting quarterback. Offensive coordinators are supposed to speak highly of their own guys, but Bill Cubit compared Lunt to Tom Brady. There’s smoke-blowing and then there’s admiration, I’d say Cubit was leaning toward the latter. Hopefully Lunt can live up to the admiration in the regular season.

Lunt could easily blow up, either by injury or due to stress, but until then, Illinois has got to win through him.

3. Get Fergylicious (forgive me)

In 2013, Illinois ran for 1668 yards and allowed opponents to rush for 2863. Clearly there were some defensive issues (addressed later), but being 94th in FBS in rushing yards is simply not OK. There was a bright spot, though, and that was the emergence of Josh Ferguson as a legit backfield threat.

Because of offensive line issues (more on that later, too), Ferguson had to prove his worth as a dual threat, catching passes out of the backfield in addition to churning up yards on the ground. Fergy ran for 811 yards on 141 carries (5.5 avg; leading rusher) and then gained another 535 yards on 50 catches (10.7 avg; second most receiving yards).

His 2013 output caught the eye of coaches and media, gaining the junior some preseason “dark horse” or “sleeper” mentions in other season preview articles. So, if Ferguson is going to improve or even repeat as one of Illinois’ best offensive threats, its going to take some doing. But Cubit showed some great creativity last year with the offense, which means getting Fergy going may be something the Illini go for early and often this year.

4. Improve the O-line

Last year Illinois’ offensive line was not great. They weren’t entirely terrible, either, but the man who led them (AJ Ricker) is now the offensive line coach at Mizzou — so there goes a shot at continuity leading to success. As I mentioned, Ferguson was equally impressive receiving as he was rushing last season, partly because the pocket broke down and he was available as an option.

Though coaching stability is an issue for this group, the Illini return four starters on the offensive line, which bodes well for the team. Right now one of those starters, Alex Hill, is listed as second string for center and left guard, which speaks to the team’s confidence in its youth. Confidence will be important because new coach Tom Brattan (previously with Stanford, Northwestern, and the Arizona Cardinals) doesn’t have room for mistakes.

The O-line has to protect Lunt for him to be successful, they have to open up holes for Ferguson to dart through, and they have to keep the big Big Ten defenses from tearing them up…again. If Becky missed the mark on the hire of Brattan (especially after not letting defensive coordinator Tim Banks go after last season) it will be obvious early on and it will once again draw into question his ability to hire good coaches, thus spelling doom for his time at the U of I.

5. Get the new guys going

Of course one newcomer will be stealing the spotlight (Mr. Lunt, of course), but Illinois is “Transfer U” again this year, with six players making their debut after playing junior college ball previously. This year’s batch of transfers are almost certain to make more impact, however, thanks to wide receiver Geronimo Allison and D-lineman Jihad Ward.

Allison is already the number one receiver for Illinois, joining former teammate Martize Barr and another newcomer, freshman Mike Dudek, at the top of the depth chart. If Ward had been in Champaign earlier he would also be at the top of the depth chart, but the former Globe Tech (New York) player didn’t get reps with the team in time to make the initial list. Since making it to Illinois, though, Ward’s reviews have been sparkling. With everything from his work ethic to his demeanor being praised. Dudek is the only freshman whose name is being thrown around a lot so far, but for all the right reasons. The 5’11” wideout has soft hands and a good eye for the ball, drawing comparisons to Wes Welker.

How the other newcomers slot into the Illinois system remains to be seen, but the integration of the higher profile new Illini will go a long way to determining how well the team is in 2014. If Timmy Ballgame’s recruiting works out as hoped and these new players aren’t embarassed in Big Ten play, then there’s a good chance he sticks around to dip his cup in the JuCo well again next year.

6. Defense. Defense. DEFENSE.

I saved the most important thing on this list for last, because if I need to spell out how bad Illinois was on defense for anyone they must not have actually watched the team play last year. Honestly, it’s a miracle Defensive Coordinator Tim Banks still has a job (I’m pretty sure he feels that way too, because he looked like a hurt puppy talking to press at the end of the last season).. If Illinois were a remotely attractive destination for top defensive minds he wouldn’t, alas…

In terms of total defense, the Illini ranked 110th out of 123 (Indiana was worse, a small victory but little consolation). They were particularly bad against the run, allowing 238 yards per game, but only slightly better against the pass, allowing 242 yards per game. Basically, teams were able to have their way with Illinois and then not bother to call the next day or ever again.

How bad the defense was is more damning when you consider that Timbo is a defensive guy. Before coming to Illinois he spent time on the Oklahoma State and Bowling Green staffs as defensive coordinator, as well as a cornerbacks coach at Ohio State. Which is to say: Beckmandu has no excuses for his defensive struggles.

If there was an excuse for 2013, however, it would be the youth and inexperience of the Illinois defense. Illinois fielded as many as four true freshmen at times and Mason Monheim was the unit’s best player as a sophomore (a very good sophomore, but likely not the person who should be at the top of the pyramid; i.e., he’s not Jadeveon Clowney). This year Illinois has a lot of returning players on the defensive side of the ball and new players with promise, like Ward, ready to make an impact. On top of that, Illinois is bigger and stronger on defense this year. As Cubit put it, “We look like a Big Ten team.”

He better be right, because if the Illini come out of the gate and let opposing teams blow up the defense’s holes again they’ll make Rutgers and Maryland (who are not Big Ten-caliber football teams and were only added to the conferences for that sweet TV money) look good by comparison and be the laughingstock of the league. If that happens, you can bet that I won’t have any need for these terrible nicknames I’ve come up with for Coachin’ Timmy Beckman for the 2015 season preview.

The Illini kick off the season tomorrow, Saturday, August 30th at home against Youngtown State. Kickoff is at 11 a.m. on Big Ten Network and BTN2, or, you know, down at Memorial Stadium.

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