Improvement has not come quickly at Illinois, nor has it come dramatically. But make no mistake, it has come.
From two wins to four wins to six wins, the most basic measure of program building has headed in the right direction in back-to-back seasons in Champaign. For the first time last season, head coach Tim Beckman won a conference game at home (twice) and reached a bowl game.
Those achievements aren’t the kind that get a statue built outside the stadium, and they aren’t the kind that have Illini fans jumping for joy and feeling the positivity. If anything — mostly thanks to a turbulent offseason that’s featured a lengthy list of allegations painting Beckman as a bully of a football coach — fans are feeling as negative as ever.
But those fans would be ignoring the trend.
[MORE BIG TEN: Comfort breeding confidence as Illini prep for 2015 season]
No one wants to beat their chest over a 6-7 season that ended in a loss to Conference USA’s Louisiana Tech in the anything-but-illustrious Heart of Dallas Bowl. But the year prior, the season’s highlight for Illinois was beating basement-dwelling Purdue. In 2014, there were some legitimate highlights thanks to big conference wins over Minnesota and Penn State in Champaign and a beatdown of rival Northwestern in Evanston — the first time the Illini had done that since 2002.
So what will 2015 bring?
Eight wins — the continuation of the pattern Beckman’s teams have created — does seem unlikely. The schedule isn’t easy with a tough Big Ten slate that should see home-field advantage wiped out by strong opponents Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska visiting Champaign. A home game was jettisoned in favor of a neutral-site (kind of) matchup against Northwestern at Soldier Field. And the lone Power 5 opponent on the non-conference schedule is, for the second straight season, a road game, this time at North Carolina.
On top of the schedule, the team’s best player — wideout Mike Dudek — will miss significant time recovering from a torn ACL he suffered during the spring. The defense has been among the conference’s worst over the past two seasons, and even though new co-defensive coordinator Mike Phair was brought in to help improve it, it’s unsure if he’ll be able to in his first season on campus.
Illinois’ chances likely hinge on Wes Lunt and whether the quarterback can avoid injury and play well if he does stay healthy. He played in just eight of the team’s 13 games last season, getting limited time against Big Ten foes.
The projections aren’t kind to the Illini, with oddsmakers suggesting they’ll struggle to reach four wins. That would be a big step backward for Beckman, and regardless of win total, those offseason allegations alone will have the coach hearing plenty of talk regarding his employment as the season marches on. If the wins are in short supply, that talk will get considerably louder.
But Beckman has heard that talk from unimpressed fans and observers for several seasons now, and each time he’s turned in a win total bigger than the prior season’s. This year isn’t expected to go well for the orange and blue. But if Beckman’s teams have proven one thing, it’s that they’ve improved from season to season, even if that improvement has been difficult to see.
Last season, it was a bowl game, and now the Illini know what it takes to get there.
“They’ve tasted it,” Beckman said Sunday at the team’s media day in Champaign. “You know, 6-6 is average. Just be honest, 6-6 is average. These players experienced what it took to get to that so that they had another opportunity to play. And these seniors now, the 23 of them that we have, know the importance of unity as a team to strive and get the most out of your family or your team.”