Illinois football improved in 2013. The team scored more points on average (29.7 compared to 16.7), rushed for more yards per play (4.06 compared to 3.46), and, most importantly, won more games (four vs. two the previous year). With his feet to the fire after a worst-case-scenario year one, Tim Beckman did this.
Of course, a lot of that improvement was short lived. Illinois had three of its best rushing games over the first five game stretch, including a 289 yard game against Miami (OH). Over the first four games, Illinois scored 161 of its season total 356 points. And of course, the only win to come after the three in the first month of the season happened late in the year against a horrible Purdue team. Illinois won by four points.
So how much progress did Illinois actually make in 2013? Was this a team that was legitimately better than the godawful group that took the field the year before? What happened as the calendar flipped from September to October to make Illinois take such a step back?
The answers to these questions could well be the only chance Tim Beckman has at keeping his job after 2014. The embattled coach has already been at the center of one disaster season followed by last year's up then down affair. Illinois fans are used to watching schizophrenic play on the field, but even so, Beckman hasn't brought the improbably highs of the Zook era; he has just kept the lows coming.
Of course, Nathan Scheelhaase is gone. I don't even know if this matters, as the enigmatic signal caller seemed to play his way in and out of favor at times in his career. But there is no denying that despite all the things going wrong around him, Scheelhaase put together a pretty solid senior season with 3200 passing yards, a 66% completion percentage, 7.6 yards per attempt, and a 21/13 TD/INT ratio.
Can Tim Beckman work his magic once again, the magic that saw him go 9-4 in his final year at Toledo thanks to the play of not one but two efficient quarterbacks, sophomore Terrance Owens (2022 yards, 72% comp, 8.8 ypa) and junior Austin Dantin (1404 yards, 65% comp, 7.5 ypa), or will Illinois' offense flounder without Scheelhaase to bail it out?
Whatever happens in 2014 will be important, but arguably not as important as how it happens. Illinois fans have been down a long time. Too many seasons have started out hopeful and ended in a torrent of mounting losses and disappointment. (the Ron Zook special). Tim Beckman doesn't just need to improve the Illini between last season and this season, he needs to find a way to show improvement from game one to game 12. If not, it could be another gut punch to a fan base that is already out of breath.
Even as bad as things have gotten and as little air is left in their lungs, you can count on Illinois fans to still find a way to call for a change up top if Illinois has another season like it did last fall.