The road has been anything but smooth, but Illinois has steadily improved under head coach Tim Beckman the last three seasons. The Fighting Illini have gone from an embarrassing 2-10 in 2012 to a middle-of-the-road 6-6 and a bowl appearance—albeit a loss—last season. I would equate Illinois’ upcoming season to a keg of explosives. If handled with care, this year could be another step in the right direction. But if the slightest logistic goes awry, the Illini could backslide. I see the former happening.
Illinois returns key starters on both sides of the ball. Receivers Geronimo Allison and Mike Dudek are back, though Dudek won’t be back till October as he is recovering from an ACL injury. Until Dudek’s return, Allison will need to be the go-to receiver. Running back Josh Ferguson returns as well, though Illinois was 114th in rushing last season. Junior college transfer Henry Enyenihi could help beef up the ground game to take pressure off the passing game. At the quarterback position, Wes Lunt is back, though newcomer Chayce Crouch may give him a battle for the starting position. Crouch is 6-foot-4, 225 pounds and is a more balanced passer than Lunt, and can scramble out of the pocket if it collapses. The offensive line is a nice mix of youth and veteran, with one senior, two juniors, one sophomore and one redshirt freshman. Once the line jells and the skill positions build chemistry, the Illini offense could string a few drives together.
On the defensive side, defensive end Jihad Ward, linebacker Mason Monheim, and defensive back V’Angelo Bentley return for the Illini. But the biggest name for the Illini defense this season is the new defensive coordinator Mike Phair. He has 13 years of NFL experience, including his time as the defensive line coach of the Chicago Bears from 2011-13. In order for the Illini to be successful this season, the front seven must create havoc on the opposing offensive front. When a team has a stellar pass rush, it takes pressure off the secondary. Bentley is a fantastic defensive back, but the Illini secondary as a whole will need as much help from the front seven as they can get. This needs to happen in order for Illinois to dominate the turnover margin, and that is the biggest key to success for Illinois this season.
Illinois has a relatively easy non-conference schedule, but it includes a somewhat tricky visit to North Carolina. It doesn’t face conference heavyweight Michigan State, but it hosts Ohio State late in the season. Its toughest conference road game is a toss up between Penn State and Minnesota. Take your pick on that one. It closes the season with arch-rival Northwestern coming to Champaign.
In summation, I have Illinois finishing the season at 7-5–3-5 in the Big Ten—finishing fifth in the West Division. The question is, will seven wins be good enough for Beckman to be back for a fifth season?
Brooks Hooley is a Junior Big Ten Football writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @brookshooley.