Breaking down any given team’s strengths and weaknesses doesn’t paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team’s win-loss potential in the preseason, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important. We will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent in the week leading up. In the interim, we present to you our Northwestern opponent summer look-ahead. It’s a little thing called “Know Your Opponent.” The title describes itself: take a peek at the schedule, read up and head into the fall having already completed part of your weekly opponent studying diet.
Returning starters: Offense – 9, Defense – 3
2012 record: 2-10 (0-8 Big Ten)
Coach: Tim Beckman, 2nd year
There are few worse ways to begin a coaching campaign than what Tim Beckman endured in his first season in Champaign. Not only was Illinois bad – which would have been ok on its face, what with all the unwieldy newness involved with a coaching transition – it became the punchline of almost every Big Ten fan’s jokes. Even Illinois’ own disenchanted supporters got in on the fun. Everyone was posting and tweeting and laughing about “Beckmemes”! The season began with a solid 24-7 win over Western Michigan, the Illini’s one and only victory over an FBS team. After a 44-0 pasting of Colorado State, which I’ll assume was just as cathartic as it was actually gratifying, the Illini reeled off a nine-game losing streak to finish the season. It's difficult to pinpoint one single nadir, but if pressed for an answer, I’d have to go with the 52-24 home loss to Louisiana Tech. Sonny Dykes may be an offensive wizard, and Tech was surprisingly good last season, but a 28-point nonconference loss doesn’t look good in any context.
Remember when Nathan Scheelhaase was one of the more exciting quarterbacks in the Big Ten? It wasn’t so long ago, actually, and if the Illini have any hopes of erasing the distaste of 2012, Scheelhaase will need to resuscitate his freshman self, only with an offense featuring less depth, talent and experience. Illinois does have a few strongpoints, including a running back tandem of Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson who should complement Scheelhaase’s running abilities to form a dynamic ground game. The passing game is a less promising situation, but the Illini do return most of their top pass catchers from last season, including seniors Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris. In the wave of coaching turnover this offseason – five assistants from last season moved elsewhere – Illinois hired former Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit as its offensive coordinator. The change might not revolutionize Illinois’ offense, but moving on from last year’s disaster is probably for the best.
Filling out a defensive front seven that lost major contributors like Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan in the offseason is the first order of business, and the back end of the defense isn’t much better off. Illinois will be forced to play either Junior college transfers or freshmen in several key spots, which will at least help turn over last season's putrid unit, but could result in the same level of overall dysfunction. Senior Jonathan Brown is one of the Big Ten’s best linebackers and sophomore Mason Monheim, who recorded a team-high 86 tackles last season, will help give the Illini one of the more formidable LB tandems in the league. The secondary remains mostly unsettled; with the exception of junior safety Earnest Thomas, this group of defensive backs will likely be filled out by underclassmen and JUCOS, which falls right in line with the pervasive theme running throughout Illinois’ entire defense.
Three players to watch
Nathan Scheelhaase, Senior QB – If his final season of college football is closer to his first than his most recent, Scheelhaase can help the Illini move past last season and leave behind a more positive impression for incoming four-star quarterback Aaron Bailey (more on him below).
Jonathan Brown, Senior LB – There aren’t many players who will be in contention for All-conference nominations at season’s end. Brown is one of them, and while he was forced to sit out a few games towards the end of last season, Brown can help set the tone for a defense that needs an identity.
Aaron Bailey, Freshman QB – I’m not predicting Bailey will play this season, but if you haven’t seen his high school clips, I highly recommend you spend a few minutes watching one of the most talented dual-threat quarterbacks in the 2013 class light up Illinois prep defenses. Bailey’s game may not translate to the next level as well as his high school credentials suggest, but the fact he didn’t renege on his verbal commitment through last season’s flameout is an encouraging sign for Illini fans.
Behind enemy lines: CBS Sports College Football Blogger and Illinois SB Nation Blog "Champaign Room" curator Tom Fornelli (@TomFornelli), on what to expect from the Illini this season:
"I'm going into this Illinois season with more of an eye on 2014. If Beckman and staff can get there -- and that's certainly an if given the way things have gone -- I think that's when this team sinks or swims. The expectations for 2013 are not very high thanks to a combination of depth, inexperience and a schedule that does this team no favors. I do think that the Illini offense will be better than it was last year, but it won't be good enough to overcome a defense that is very young. At least not consistently. I'd be happy with four wins from this team in 2013, especially if one of them is a Big Ten win and ends the conference losing streak"
My evaluation of Illinois was probably a bit too harsh. It’s easy to pick on the Illini after last season and Northwestern fans will be the first to pile on. The Land of Lincoln rivalry doesn’t really feel like a rivalry right now, but it’s important to remember that most rivalries – and college football in general – evolve in fits and waves. Illinois will have its comeuppance – probably not this season, and maybe not under Beckman’s watch. But the Illini have proven they can not only beat, but demoralize the Wildcats from time to time. For 2013, marginal improvement should be the goal. Bowl eligibility, especially given the tough schedule Illinois was dealt, is probably the best possible outcome. Even if the results on the field aren’t what Illini fans desire, 2013 will, at bare minimum, serve as a barometer for Beckman’s viability going forward. You get the sense there needs to be marked wins-measured improvement from last season; if there isn’t, Beckman’s probably gone.