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MnB B1G Preview: The Biggest Storylines Surrounding Illinois football

In this installment of the Maize n' Brew Big Ten Preview series, we take a look at Illinois head coach Tim Beckman and what the program's biggest storylines are going into 2014.

Head coach Tim Beckman.
Head coach Tim Beckman.
Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

Will Tim Beckman lose his job?

When Tim Beckman was hired to coach the Fighting Illini, he was supposed to take the program to where Ron Zook could not: consistency and new heights. Zook famously had a roller coaster of a tenure in Champaign. His first two seasons were dreadful. He went a combined 4-19 in those two years, before having a breakthrough season by coaching the Illini to 9-3 and making an appearance in the Granddaddy of Them All, the Rose Bowl, in 2007. It seemed like the program was finally getting its due.

Then Zook's next two seasons spiraled downward. Illinois missed another chance at the post-season by falling to 5-7 in 2008, and when the Illini went 3-9 in 2009, Zook was declared a dead man walking. He was given another chance by athletic director Ron Guenther, and Zook subsequently posted back-to-back seasons where he went 6-6 and sent his team to back-to-back bowl games. However, when new athletic director Mike Thomas came in, he summed up Zook's performance and fired him. Mediocrity in the form of 6-6 seasons was not good enough.

So Mike Thomas, saying he wanted to make a "splash," went out and hired Toledo coach Tim Beckman, which turned out to be pretty much the exact opposite of a "splash," though Beckman does have a penchant for enthusiasm. Within the first few months of his tenure, the new coach proceeded to make a lot of decisions that proved embarrassing for the program. Hoping to convince current Penn State players to transfer, Beckman sent recruiters to State College after the Sandusky Scandal of Penn State. This quickly painted Beckman in a sour light, and he later defended his decision at the Big Ten Media Days event. He also broke an NCAA rule by chewing tobacco on the field during game time, and he drew a personal foul for interfering with a referee on the sidelines. Worst of all, he went 2-10 in his Big Ten head coaching debut.

Beckman's second season in the Big Ten saw the Illini go 4-8, and some have put the beleaguered Illinois coach squarely, firmly on the hot seat. Why? The general reasoning is simple: you would think that a guy who came in to replace another guy who had two straight 6-6 seasons would do a hell of a lot better than 6-18.

Of course, the man who hired Beckman doesn't see it that way. Athletic director Mike Thomas has given Beckman his vote of confidence twice -- once after Beckman went 2-10 in 2012, and again after Beckman went 4-8 in 2013. Thomas's position is that, like the few Beckman supporters out there, he trusts the man to do his job, and as long as they're "moving the needle" in the right direction, Beckman's job is secure. That's odd considering how Thomas fired Zook because of a poor Big Ten record. Yet, like Guenther with Zook, Thomas seems set for the long haul with his chosen coach, advocating that Beckman's program is a project. So Illini fans should get comfortable, even if Beckman doesn't go to a bowl game in 2014, because it doesn't look like he's going anywhere.

Can the defense match the offense's progress?

One of the biggest silver linings of the 2013 season for Illinois was the vast improvement on offense seen under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who was formerly the coach of the Western Michigan Broncos. Beckman originally had a pair of co-offensive coordinators in Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales, neither of which had any coordinating experience, hired reportedly because Beckman wanted his staff to primarily be recruiters. That turned out to be one of Beckman's worst decisions. Beatty was let go following the 2012 season, and Gonzales left in February 2013. By hiring the experienced and savvy Cubit, Beckman made a choice that quite possibly saved his job.

For last season's Maize n' Brew Big Ten Preview, I did a brief analysis of what Cubit was bringing to the Illini offense and what type of offense he would run. Based primarily on Cubit's comments from his opening press conference, I concluded that he would essentially run a high-tempo multiple. In reviewing the Illini's 2013 offense, though you could say it looked like a more efficient version of what Illinois's 2012 spread offense was trying to be, it did seem to take more of an emphasis on Cubit's pro-style elements.

Via PennLive:

The multiple, pro-style offense Cubit runs uses [Nathan] Scheelhaase’s running threat more as a decoy and spreads the ball around to different receivers. It gets the ball out quickly and maximizes Scheelhaase’s ability to hit short passes while de-emphasizing his weakness with long throws. The result has been by far the best completion percentage (.653), yards per attempt (8.4) and TD/int rate (12/5) of his career. His running numbers aren't what they were as an underclassman but Cubit wants him to be a quarterback not some hybridized dual-threat.

That was written before Illinois squared off against Penn State in Beaver Stadium, after the Illini had been destroyed 42-3 by Michigan State and the Nittany Lions had been obliterated 63-14 by Ohio State. Illinois ended up losing to Penn State in overtime, 24-17, but it was one of the most competitive performances seen by the Illini faithful all season, owed in large part to Cubit's revamped, functioning offense. That unit finished the season ranked No. 2 in passing in the conference, second only to the pass-happy Indiana Hoosiers led by Air Raid aficionado Kevin Wilson.

The defense, however, was far less inspiring in comparison. The Illini ranked dead last in rushing defense in the conference, and ranked No. 9 and No. 10 in passing defense and scoring defense, respectively. They had the second-worst total defense in the conference, again second only to the Indiana Hoosiers, to whom they lost 52-35 in 2013. The general thinking around much of the Illini fan base is that their season, like the Hoosiers', could have possibly ended with a bowl berth had their defense not been so woefully inept.

Going forward, the question about the defense looms large. The offense has clearly made strides, receiving an overall B+ grade from SB Nation Illinois blog The Champaign Room, but the defense received an overwhelming F grade from the fans. If Beckman is going to be more secure following the 2014 season, it will have to come with some considerable improvement from the defensive side. Still, that he was able to make such an effective and spectacular hire as Bill Cubit, who recently received a raise that many Illini fans feel is well-deserved, could very well be the biggest point in Beckman's favor as the man in charge. However, he chose to retain defensive coordinator Tim Banks, after having already shuffled so many staff members through his program. Thanks to Cubit's success, Beckman is afforded some leeway, but things could turn ugly in a hurry should Banks' defense not improve enough to complement the Illini's overhauled offense.

Can Wes Lunt make an early impact?

The leader of last year's offense, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, has graduated. What's left under center is senior Reilly O'Toole (6'4", 220 lbs.), sophomore Aaron Bailey (6'2", 220 lbs.), and a third intriguing possibility in Wes Lunt (6'5", 215 lbs.), who transferred to Illinois from Oklahoma State, where he had a famous debut as the Cowboys' first quarterback to start as a true freshman. Lunt's freshman season in Stillwater showed flashes of excellence and potential for the Rochester (IL) native, who chose Oklahoma State over offers from Michigan State, Louisville, Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, and yes, Illinois. However, when Lunt was knocked out by injuries and eventually lost the starting job to Cliff Chelf, he opted for a transfer.

Initially blocked from reaching out to nearly 30 schools by Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, Lunt was allowed to consider a transfer to Illinois. This created a bit of buzz over at SB Nation Illinois blog The Champaign Room, which subsequently went absolutely nuts when news broke that Lunt was indeed coming to play for the Illini. Out of all the negatives that Tim Beckman's program had endured in his first season, Lunt's transfer was seen by fans as the single biggest reason for optimism going forward. Although O'Toole and Bailey have more starting experience, Lunt is generally considered the most likely candidate to start at quarterback in 2014.

Lunt also brings some celebrity to Illinois, which has not historically ever had a headliner at quarterback the way other Big Ten schools have. Even Scheelhaase, who received Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2010, was glossed over for other quarterbacks in the conference, such Terrelle Pryor and Denard Robinson. Lunt made headlines in his time at Oklahoma State, and he could potentially bring a great deal of excitement and intrigue to people who have little interest in Illinois football. While he has not yet won the starting job, he is certainly a leading candidate in the mix and his arm strength impressed Bill Cubit, who previously tried to recruit him to Western Michigan. In addition, Lunt's height at 6'5" makes him attractive to the NFL as a quarterback prototype.

However, the key element that Lunt's game lacks is experience, not necessarily ability. Remember that Lunt is a quarterback who is only a redshirt sophomore, not a redshirt senior. He's probably not going to go out in 2014 and be Andrew Luck. He may indeed have a high ceiling, but he's not there yet, as evidenced by his awkward performance in the recent Illinois spring game. His presence alone in Champaign does not guarantee wins or better offensive production, but he does provide them with an interesting option that is well worth following. And even though Lunt maintains that he's not the program's savior, that won't stop die-hard Illini fans from thinking of him as such.

Can Illinois get to a bowl game?

Much like Purdue, the Illini have a manageable schedule with enough opportunities in key places that a decent team could get to six wins. They are afforded a light non-conference schedule with an opener against Youngstown State, Western Kentucky, Washington, and Texas State. With the Washington Huskies being the only game you could easily if not definitively peg as a loss, if the Illini take care of business they should be able to get to 3-1 going into Big Ten play.

That's where things get interesting. Illinois faces an absolutely brutal road schedule that you all but count as automatic losses: at Nebraska, at Wisconsin, and at Ohio State all stand out as wince-worthy contests. However, the Illini's home slate provides a few chances to improve Beckman's conference record. Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa, and Penn State all visit Champaign. Assuming the Boilermakers remain listless, Purdue is the only likely win for the improved Illini, who also close out the season in Evanston against Northwestern, which fell to 4-8 last season (but still beat Illinois).

If we're going strictly by what's realistic, this seems to shape up to be a clear but competitive 5-7 season, with Illinois's best chances of Big Ten wins coming against Purdue and Northwestern. Furthermore, if Beckman's squad can spring a trap game on either Minnesota or Iowa (and Penn State is possible here too), it could be just enough to send these guys to the post-season. However, if Illinois struggles against their non-conference cupcakes and enters the conference schedule at 2-2 or worse, the hill to climb looks Olympian and the shot at pulling at least three huge upsets is a mile long.