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Rant Sports College Football Rankings: No. 88 Illinois Fighting Illini

Josh Ferguson

Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

After two consecutive mediocre seasons with the Illinois Fighting Illini, head coach Tim Beckman has a lot of work to do in what can be considered a make-or-break year for his future in Champaign.

Although Illinois isn’t projected to do much this season after losing Nathan Scheelhaase, the Illini can prove people wrong and make a run at their first bowl game since 2011. After going 4-8 in 2013 following a 2-10 record in 2012, many people close to the program are feeling restless.

Could this be the year the Illini finally perform well under Beckman?

Offense

Losing Scheelhaase at quarterback won’t be easy for the offense to overcome in the big scheme of things. However, the addition of Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt last season was huge for the program as a quarterback with starting experience will step up and take the job.

Although Reilly O’Toole has the most experience of any returning quarterback for the Illini and he’s the lead returning passer, the team will likely turn to Lunt. As a true freshman with Oklahoma State, Lunt passed for 1,108 yards and six touchdowns in the better part of six games.

The running game will be a bit improved as well as both of the top rushers from last year return. Josh Ferguson led the team with 779 yards and seven scores while Donovonn Young racked up 376 yards and three touchdowns.

Defense

While the defense of Illinois was solid a few years ago, it has regressed tremendously under Beckman’s current staff. Last season, Illinois ranked 106th in the nation in points against while also giving up an elevated 481.5 yards per game.

Losing leading tackler Jonathan Brown will hurt the defense in 2014, but returning the second-leading tackler, Earnest Thomas III, will ease that pain. Thomas III recorded 101 total tackles, two tackles for loss and three forced fumbles at the linebacker position in 2013.

However, the defense is returning many other key starters including some top linebackers and top defensive back Zane Petty who recorded 75 tackles last season.

Schedule

With a relatively winnable non-conference schedule, the Illini could go into conference play with at least a 3-1 record. It isn’t the non-conference schedule that has been giving Beckman trouble in the past two seasons as five of his six wins as head coach have come from non-conference contests.

Toughest Games: Sept. 13 at Washington, Sept. 27 at Nebraska, Oct. 11 at Wisconsin, Nov. 1 at Ohio State, Nov. 15 vs. Iowa.

In my opinion, I doubt the Illini will make a bowl game this season as their five toughest games will all likely come out as losses and there are bound to be one or two other games that they should win that they will fall short in.

I say Illinois improves one game from last season to 5-7 in the new alignment of the Big Ten.

Connor Muldowney is the Content Associate for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @Connormuldowney, “Like” him on Facebook or add him to your network on Google. You can also reach him at connor.muldowney@rantsports.com.