The Ron Zook “Reign of Terror” is over, and a new era Beck-ons in Champaign. We are just a little over a week away from the opening of the Illinois football season, so let’s talk about what to expect.
We are all very excited to have a new head coach in charge, and Tim Beckman certainly has the energy and devotion to make it work. However, there is still a coaching transition, so let’s keep these expectation in check, shall we?
Things to Smile About
On the plus side, this is the first time we’ve gone into a season after back-to-back winning seasons in 1989 and 1990. Also, we are the only Big Ten team to have won two bowl games in a row.
Yes, I know those bowl games were the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl and the Texas Bowl – but bowls are bowls and wins are wins, right? This means we have talent, and now perhaps we’ve got someone to harness that talent.
Some key guys coming back are QB Nathan Scheelhaase, LB Jonathan Brown and CB Terry Hawthorne. Scheelhaase had a bit of a tough year last year (well, most players did aside from Whitney Mercilus), but a junior quarterback is always a nice thing to have. Brown also had a strong year, and now he’s going to have to work even harder to step into those Mercilus shoes. In all 16 starters are coming back (7 offense, 8 defense).
Miles Osei is going to be doing everything except tossing cheerleaders on the sidelines, and sources are saying that our most improved area is on the special teams. There is even a competition for kicker.
In addition to Becks at the helm, we’ve got a great supporting cast in guys like Billy Gonzalez and football royalty Luke Butkus. Not to mention that there is no one around to call bad plays or forget how much time is on the clock (ahem Zook). There has always been a lot of hush hush talk about the way the players really feel about Zook, but now that he’s gone more people have been opening up.
A former Illini with a Super Bowl ring who shall remain nameless (hint: last name starts with weather and ends with a type of car made in the U.S. that rhymes with Lord) pretty much openly called Zook an asshole on the radio.
Perhaps Beckman and his staff can keep the talent calm and in check so they can do what they are supposed to do.
Things to Worry About
On the negative side, we lost the last six games of the season last year. The fact that they rallied to win the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against UCLA might’ve been an indication that Coach Ron Zook was the problem (he was fired weeks before the game), but then again the interim coach that led them to the win – Vic Koenning – has also jumped ship when he wasn’t given any credit or a real offer to stay.
Also, we’ve lost Mercilus, and top receiver A.J. Jenkins. You know who we’re not going to miss? Mr. Jason run-down-the-center-two-inches-at-a-time-Ford.
Last year it was offense that was the problem, with the defense carrying the team most of the time.
Our biggest issue this season might be depth, especially on offense. There isn’t a lot of depth at WR, but there is some talent, starting with Jon Davis. Donovonn Young should be fine at RB, but not sure who else will be there. The new system is supposed to take care of the depth issues, but guys are going to get tired, and injured.
One of the keys to the transition is that the returning guys need to buy into Coach Beckman’s new system, and according to the rumors this is what’s happening. However, we’re not really going to see if this is happening until they get onto the field starting Sept. 1.
A Look at the Season
That first game against Western Michigan is going to tell us a whole lot. It’s a much different start than we’re used to of late, as our contract with Missouri has FINALLY run out. That means no more guaranteed loss in game one anymore! While Western Michigan is a much easier opponent, it is by no means a cake walk. It is a team that a talented Illini should beat, but we are an unsure football squad that has a lot to prove. If they win against Western Michigan, then that will set the tone for the season, which could be another winner.
Up next is Arizona State on Sept. 8, which could also go either way. They’re giant QB Brock Osweiler has gone to the NFL, and scary bully Vontaze Burfict is also out of the picture. However, it’s a road game against a Pac Ten opponent, so it could be a rough stretch. A win against WMU could give the Illini the confidence to beat the Sun Devils as well.
After that, we’ve got two easy wins at home with Charleston Southern (Sept. 15) and Louisiana Tech (Sept. 22). It is impossible to believe Penn State (Sept. 29) will have a chance at doing anything this year, but Bill O’Brien has coached a Super Bowl team and Tom Brady, which he reminds us often. This could be another, giving us the potential to start off 5-0. But then things take a bit of a turn.
Go ahead and check the next two games at Wisconsin (Oct. 6) then at Michigan (Oct. 13) as losses, and then the Illini return home, rest for a week, and then beat up and embarrass Indiana (Oct. 27) and Kevin Wilson at home. We’ll get another loss at Ohio State (Nov. 3), and then things get interesting again.
Minnesota at home (Nov. 10) is certainly winable, which could secure the team’s 7th win. Then Purdue the next weekend on Nov. 17 could also give the Illini another W no the board. Rounding out the season is Northwestern in Evanston (Nov. 24), which is another big question mark that could go either way.
The way I see it, Illinois should have another winning season. If they win the games that will take effort but can be done (Western Michigan, ASU, Penn State) and then get those question marks taken care of (Purdue, Minnesota) then we should have some satisfied fans. However, is merely a winning going to be enough? I think AD Mike Thomas would say “not a chance.” So no pressure Tim Beckman, but Mike Thomas doesn’ t like to lose.
Beckman may not be a favorite in the league due to his unabashed admission that he has no problem pinching Penn State transfers (welcome Ryan Nowicki!) but he is on the up-and-up and that’s all I care about. The key is how the players respond, and that’s what we have to wait and see.