The Fighting Illini's 2013 season started out with some promise as they beat a good Cincinnati team that would end the season 9-4. That was followed up by a close loss to the Washington Huskies. After a 3-1 start, it was going to be a good season, right? Wrong. They lost seven of the next eight, beating only Purdue in that time.
Who They Play in 2014
|Date||Opponent||Will Illinois Win or Lose|
|11/1||@ Ohio State||Lose|
The Key Games
Most Winnable: Purdue. Now, that's not to say that I think Youngstown State, Western Kentucky, or Texas State are going to be difficult for the Illini, but everyone knows how the Boilers did last year. I think Purdue will be a disaster again this year, but decided to make a little wager with the folks at Hammer and Rails.
Guaranteed Loss: Ohio State. Braxton Miller and Urban Meyer; that's all you need to know. Well, there is a little more to know--Carlos Hyde is gone, but Ezekiel Elliot should be able to slip right in and take the lead on the ground. But it sounds like Bri'onte Dunn wants to be in the mix, too.
- Minnesota -- the Gophers surprised a lot of people last year, but teams will be ready for them in 2014. With Philip Nelson transferring to Rutgers, the new starting QB should be Mitch Leidner, who passed for 619 yards and three TDs, but also rushed for 407 yards and seven TDs. Also returning on offense will be running back David Cobb, TE Maxx Williams, and WR Drew Wolitarsky. Minnesota fans everywhere are also anticipating the return of Briean Boddy-Calhoun on defense, as he suffered a season-ending knee injury two games into the 2013 season. They'll need a defensive presence now that Ra'Shede Hageman is now in the NFL.
- Iowa -- Kirk Ferentz is a mediocre coach, but he does well enough to keep the Hawkeyes competitive and always a threat. Will the Illini be a threat to Iowa? I'm sure they'll be a bigger threat than Culver's. Seriously, though, QB Jake Rudock had a relatively successful 2013, throwing for almost 2,400 yards and 18 TDs. Tight End C.J. Fiedorowicz is gone, but Jake Duzey and Kevonte Martin-Manley will still be targets for Rudock in the passing game. Mark Weisman and Jordan Canzeri combined for 1,455 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground in 2013, so their return in 2014 means that Iowa could actually be a top-tier team in the West.
- Penn State -- it took overtime for the Nittany Lions to beat the Illini last year, but it was an interception in the end zone that did it. We're all waiting to see how James Franklin can do in Happy Valley, but going on the road to face Illinois may not be as easy as it sounds. I liked what Christian Hackenberg was able to do, all things considered, but he will definitely need to make a big step this season for the Lions to be successful.
The Tough Road Schedule
- Washington -- Steve Sarkisian has moved on to USC, but the Huskies will still be the better team on the field when they meet up with the Illini. Chris Petersen has replaced Sark, and everyone knows about Petersen's success during his time at Boise State. There are some questions at the quarterback position, and possibly at running back, but Petersen is too good at his job to not be successful in Seattle, even without a guy like Bishop Sankey
- Nebraska -- this is the second year in a row that the Illini travel to Lincoln. Last year resulted in a 20 point loss to the Huskers. Imani Cross and Kenny Bell are returning for probable QB starter Tommy Armstrong. If Armstrong can keep mistakes to a minimum, there may be another lopsided victory in Lincoln.
- Wisconsin -- no Chris Borland, no Jared Abbrederis, no James White. Plenty of Melvin Gordon and Cory Clement. There may be some competition between Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy under center, but Camp Randall is good for about 14 points, so Illinois needs to play a perfect game if they want to win.
The Illini will not win any less than five games in 2014, but their road schedule is brutal. Although I predict a road win at Northwestern, the games at Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio State are almost all going to be guaranteed losses. Luckily, Illinois has a home schedule that sets them up for some success and should allow them to become a bowl eligible team at the end of the season. They'll need to win one of the toss-ups in order for that to happen, and I don't see any reason why 6-6 should be out of the question. Congratulations, Tim Beckman, you'll keep your job for one more year.