BY JEFF SLADE
As football season inches closer, we take a look at the early preseason previews of every team for the 2015 Big Ten Season, ranking numbers 14 through one until we finally hit September 3rd.
2014 Record: 6-7 (3-5)
Key games: at Iowa, at Minnesota, Northwestern
Players to watch: QB Wes Lunt, RB Josh Ferguson, LB Mason Monheim
Illinois football has improved by two wins each of the last three years, going 6-7 in 2014 including wins over Minnesota and Penn State.
They reached a bowl game for the first time since 2011, dropping 35-18 to Louisiana Tech in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Despite the loss, simply playing in the postseason was a welcome change for Illini fans after 6 combined wins the previous two seasons.
Can they continue this positive trend in 2015?
If they do, it’d be the first winning season for Tim Beckman in Champagne. Anything less may in fact lead to the end of Beckman’s tenure, after his predecessor Ron Zook was fired after consecutive 7-6 seasons.
There’s also been a bit of unwanted controversy this offseason for Beckman.
In May, former Illini offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic took to twitter to rip Beckman about his treatment of players, accusing his former coach of making him play through injuries.
“A bad knee and a bad shoulder and I'm supposed to just keep going?” he said in the tweets. “Just play right tackle they said.”
No matter, Beckman is still the coach in Champagne, although Cvijanovic’s accusations possibly turn Beckman’s hot seat into a burning one if the on-field product fails to improve.
That may be aided by a fairly easy non-conference schedule.
The Illini face Kent State, Western Illinois, and Middle Tennessee at home in addition to a road contest against North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They should be at worst 3-1 exiting that stretch, as anything less would be an indication for a rough year ahead.
They then move on to a fairly tough Big Ten schedule, facing Penn State and defending National Champions Ohio State from the East Division.
Key games against Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and Northwestern will go a long way towards the team’s success or failure.
On the offensive side of the ball, Illinois will likely rely on junior quarterback Wes Lunt, as he’s shown to be a capable signal caller when healthy. His health, though, and not his talent, might be the primary question for fans.
In the backfield, Lunt will have help behind him, with senior running back Josh Ferguson coming off a 741 yard, eight touchdown season in 2015. If there were one thing the explosive Ferguson can improve upon it’d be his shaky ball security, last year giving it away seven times.
The receiving corps and offensive line, however, will be the primary questions, as 2014’s leading receiver Mike Dudek is still recovering from a torn ACL and the line replaces three of their best players.
On defense, things might hinge on whether Illinois is able to improve their rushing defense, ranking 82nd in 2014 for Opponent Rushing Success Rate. It doesn’t matter how good a secondary is if the other team can move the ball on the ground at will.
They do have some pieces, most notably defensive end Dawuane Smoot and linebacker Mason Monheim. They also return every cornerback from a pretty decent secondary, which will probably be the backbone of the 2015 defense.
In all, watch for the success Wes Lunt and ability to stop the run to play major roles whether Tim Beckman finds himself in Champagne come 2016.
Prediction: 6-7 (3-5); fifth in Big Ten West