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University of Illinois Football: State of the Program

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Illinois football team has lost 16 of the last 18 regular season games and expectations for 2013 are about as high as the temperature in Chicago in January.

Tim Beckman found coaching in the Big Ten is a little bit of a challenge compared to the Mid American Conference where he had been the coach at Toledo the previous three seasons winning 14 of his final 16 conference games. Beckman finished his rookie season in Champaign with an abysmal 2-10 record and went winless in the conference, the fourth time this has happened to the Illini in the past 16 seasons.

Following the 36-point loss to Northwestern in the season finale there was growing speculation that athletic director Mike Thomas would fire Beckman after just one season–even if that was perceived to be too short of a leash for a coach–however Beckman is must fix a dreadful defense and an even worse offense if he has any hopes of seeing a third season.

The Fighting Illini struggled mightily on offense this season finishing the season with No. 111 ranked passing offense, No. 99 rushing offense and No. 122 in scoring offense with an embarrassing 16.7 points per game.

Defensively, the Illini didn’t fare much better, but at least cracked the top 100 in scoring defense giving up 32.1 points per game which ranked No. 95 in the nation, but loses end Michael Buchanan, tackle Akeem Spence and defensive back Terry Hawthorne to the NFL draft.

The good news for the Illini defense is that Johnathan Brown is returning for his senior season after bypassing the draft and will be one of the top linebackers in the conference and the nation next season.

The offense has to figure out the quarterback position and rising senior Nathan Scheelhaase figures to be the man after struggling with inconsistency and injuries in 2012 and finished his junior season throwing twice as many interceptions (8) as touchdowns (4) and has regressed every year since playing so well as a true freshman in 2010.

If there is a bright side to the offense, it’s that the team’s three leading rushers return led by Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson. On the other hand these two running backs were only good enough to rush for 883 yards and three touchdowns.

If there is a sense of optimism surrounding the program it’s due to incoming recruit Aaron Bailey (Bolingbrook, Il, Bolingbrook H.S.). The 6-2 215-pound dual-threat quarterback is the crown jewel to the Illinois recruiting class who beat out Notre Dame and Ohio State for his services.

The future of the Illini program lies with Bailey and I would not be surprised to see him on the field as a true freshman in certain formations and as a starter if Scheelhaase exhibits some of the same problems he did last season. Bailey can be to Illinois what Braxton Miller is to Ohio State and mask a lot of the other problems with his electrifying play-making ability.

The chances of a bowl appearance in 2013 look bleak, but doubling last season’s win total and getting a couple conference wins is a step in the right direction while simultaneously getting a glimpse into the future of the program.

But will it be good enough to keep Beckman’s job?

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickASchmidt

Patrick is the host of “The Wake-up Call,” on Sportstownchicago.com airing Wednesday mornings from 8-10. View his show’s website here.