Big Ten

Back to the MAC? Speculating who could be next Illini coach


Back to the MAC? Speculating who could be next Illini coach

After the Tim Beckman Era crashed and burned in spectacular fashion, would Illinois really go back to the MAC?

Let’s back up. Beckman was fired Friday after initial findings in an investigation into the football program found the now-former Illini head football coach deterred injury reporting, influenced medical decisions, pressured players to play hurt and treated players inappropriately in respect to their scholarship status.

And while the qualified Bill Cubit is taking over as interim head coach, there will be a search for a long-term head coach starting up formally in a few months, according to athletics director Mike Thomas.

So with Beckman ousted, who are some of possible names that could take over, long-term, as the next head football coach at Illinois? It’s all speculation right now, but with Thomas refusing to talk about his thinking publicly, speculation is the best we’ve got.

Here are some possibilities.

[MORE BIG TEN: Mistreatment of players, not record, did in Illini's Beckman]

Bill Cubit, Illinois interim head coach

You’ve got to start with Cubit, who is as good a last-minute replacement for Beckman — fired a week before the start of the 2015 season — as there could be. Cubit will provide stability for the players currently prepping for the season-opener against Kent State, making sure business continues as normal from a football perspective.

Cubit has done good things in two seasons as the offensive coordinator, turning things around in his first year with help from fourth-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Last season, an injury to starter Wes Lunt did the Illini offense in early on. But if Lunt can blossom into what many think he’s capable of becoming this season under Cubit’s leadership, that’ll be a huge plus for Cubit, who said Friday he’s interested in sticking around long-term.

Cubit also has eight years of prior FBS head-coaching experience, taking Western Michigan to three bowl games in his octet of seasons helming the Broncos.

[MORE BIG TEN: Tim Beckman saga shows importance of student-athlete voice]

P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan head coach

Speaking of Western Michigan, Fleck is at the top of many speculative lists of future Power 5 conference head-coaching gigs. But Illinois is a particularly good fit for the 34-year-old rising star of a coach. Fleck is from Sugar Grove, a Kaneland High School product and a Northern Illinois alum. A local guy, he knows the Land of Lincoln, and he’s moderately familiar with the Big Ten, too, starting his coaching career as a grad assistant at Ohio State before returning to Northern, where he assisted current Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill. He also spent two seasons coaching wide receivers at Rutgers prior to the Scarlet Knights joining the Big Ten.

He’s entering his third season at the helm of the Western Michigan program, taking the Broncos from 1-11 in 2013 to an 8-5 finish and bowl appearance last season.

Fleck’s youth and general reputation in the state and around the country could provide the Illini with the energy boost they so desperately need and could aid recruiting efforts, particularly in state, as well.

[MORE BIG TEN: Tim Beckman denies mistreatment in defiant post-firing statement]

Brock Spack, Illinois State head coach

Spack gained plenty of attention last season when he took the Redbirds to the FCS national championship game. In six seasons as the Redbirds’ head coach, he’s posted a 46-26 record, establishing Illinois State as one of the FCS’ better programs. Obviously, he has local ties that could boost in-state recruiting efforts, and he’s extremely familiar with the Big Ten, serving as the Purdue defensive coordinator for 12 seasons from 1997 to 2008 before he took over Illinois State.

FCS head coaches making the jump to a Power 5 program isn’t the most common thing, and obviously such a move would come with a good deal of risk. While Spack has had great success at Illinois State, there’s a pretty gigantic difference between the Missouri Valley and the Big Ten. That being said, Spack brings a lot of positives and would likely be a good hire.

[MORE BIG TEN: Behind Bill Cubit, Illini still have a football season to play]

Dino Babers, Bowling Green head coach

Babers is another rising star in the MAC, and he also has some local ties. Babers went 19-7 in two seasons as the head coach at Eastern Illinois before taking over at Bowling Green. In his first year helming the Falcons last season, he finished with an 8-6 record and beat South Alabama in the Camellia Bowl. Babers served many years as an assistant for various teams before going to Eastern Illinois. His most notable stint came as an assistant at Baylor from 2008 to 2011.

[MORE BIG TEN: With Beckman fired, what does future hold for Illini AD Mike Thomas?]

The field

Dipping into the lower levels of college football is the likely route for the Illini, as consistent losing and recent turmoil has made Illinois one of the more undesirable programs to front in the Power 5. Of course, there are positives, such as football facilities and Big Ten exposure while playing in the conference's weaker and more winnable division. It’s not like no one would want the gig. But speculation about top-of-the-line coordinators, such as Oregon’s Scott Frost, leaving for Champaign seems unrealistic.

Beckman came out of the MAC, surely a reason to be wary of going back into that pool for his successor. While Beckman’s legacy is now one of player abuse, there was plenty of losing that accompanied that, too. Purdue’s Darrell Hazell also came to the Big Ten from the MAC and is doing a great deal of losing, as well, something continuing to make that route one to take with caution. But Urban Meyer coached in the MAC at one point, so successful coaches can most certainly come from that conference.

But don’t expect big names to be drawn to Illinois like moths to a flame. Names speculated about such as Frost, Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and even former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel seem to be various degrees of outlandish. Maybe a rising Big Ten coordinator like Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash or even Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda could be more plausible options and good ones, at that.

But looking to the MAC — or the FCS in the case of Spack — might be the most realistic option, and there are good candidates there, too. The Illinois coaching search won’t even start in earnest for some time, and the wait for a hire will be even longer. For now, though, let the speculation run wild.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings


See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings


See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.