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Know your Northwestern football opponent, Week 12: LOLinois

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When the Illini become the subject, objectivity goes out the window.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

With our Summer Guide now complete, you probably have a general sense of Northwestern's outlook for the coming season. But breaking down any given team's strengths and weaknesses doesn't paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team's win-loss potential, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important.

Come game week, we will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent, but in the interim, we present to you our Know Your Opponent series. It's our look ahead at all 12 teams on Northwestern's 2015 schedule. So by the time training camp rolls around, you'll have a fuller view of the upcoming season.

Today, we conclude our opponent previews with the team that shall not be named, nor projected to make a bowl as long as their coach is there.

The Basics

Returning Starters: Offense -7, Defense - 7
2014 Record: 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten)
Coach: Tim Beckman, 4th year (12-25 at Illinois)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2014 S&P+ Overall Rank: 65th
2014 S&P+ Offense Rank: 60th
2014 S&P+ Defense Rank: 72nd
2015 S&P+ Projection: 63rd

2014 Capsule

After two tough atrocious years at the helm, Tim Beckman somehow managed to steer Illinois to a bowl berth last year. After escaping the mighty Penguins of Youngstown State and the fearsome Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky with fourth-quarter comebacks in both games, the Illini got railed by Washington (see what happens when you schedule SOMEONE). They managed another fourth-quarter comeback to defeat Texas State to finish the non-conference slate 3-1.

The Illini then lost to Nebraska and Purdue, the game in which starting quarterback Wes Lunt broke his leg. Reilly O'Toole took over. The Illini lost at Wisconsin before stunning Minnesota in front of the largest crowd at Memorial Stadium all season. After getting thumped by Ohio State and Iowa, the Illini beat Penn State and won the season-finale-that-didn't-actually-happen-because-Northwestern's-injury-list-was-longer-than-Tim-Beckman's-accusation-list in Evanston. Illinois then earned the title of "worst bowl team" by nearly getting doubled up by Louisiana Tech, 35-18, in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

Offensive Overview

Lunt is back and should be 100 percent health-wise. He showed promise as a freshman at Oklahoma State before getting hurt and struggling to regain early season form. He lost his job and transferred to Illinois, where he sat out a year before having another strong start to last season. Another injury put an end to the success though, so his health will be key.

At running back, the Illini return explosive playmaker Josh Ferguson. The senior averaged over five yards per carry last year and had eight touchdowns on the ground. He also had 50 catches for nearly 500 yards last year. He had trouble holding onto the ball (four fumbles lost), but has loads of talent. There are no experienced options behind him at the position, so his health, too, is crucial.

Mike Dudek was a second-team All-Big Ten wideout last year as a freshman. He's a terrific player that can take the top off the defense or run precise routes and pick a defense apart underneath. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL in April and will miss about half the season if his rehab goes perfectly. If not — or if Illinois is 0-6, probably the more likely scenario — Dudek might just take a medical redshirt this season.

The Illini have plenty of experienced options behind him, though. Geronimo Allison, Malik Turner and Justin Hardee all saw significant time last year, but Illinois will need all three to step up in Dudek's absence. Tight ends are not a major factor in Illinois' passing attack, but the Illini lost their top two at the position from last year.

The offensive line is not expected to be a strength. The two top linemen in terms of career starts, Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic — you may have heard of him — are gone. So is starting center Alex Hill. Ted Karras returns from injury, but this line could be an adventure.

Defensive Overview

This unit struggled against the run last year, but the Illini return most of their starting front seven. The defense was solid against the pass but loses its two standout safeties. It will be interesting to see how co-coordinators Mike Phair and Tim Banks deal with those losses.

Up front, Austin Tietsma is gone, but Jihad Ward, Duwuane Smoot and Rob Bain return. Ward (6-foot-6, 295 pounds) and Bain (6-foot-3, 305 pounds) provide some meat. Talented backup Jarrod Clements is also in the mix.

The linebacking corps should be strong. Mason Monheim and T.J. Neal, last year's top two 'backers, return. They are joined by Mike Svetina, who returns after missing all of 2014 with injury. There is also decent depth at this position; LaKeith Walls saw action in all 13 games last year.

The secondary will have to replace Zane Petty and Earnest Thomas III, two very good playmakers, but second-leading tackler Taylor Barton returns as do basically every cornerback that saw playing time last year. Eaton Spence is solid in coverage and V'Angelo Bentley, who will start opposite of him, is terrific against the run. He had 7.5 tackles for a loss last year.

Three Players to Know

Wes Lunt (QB) - If he's healthy, he's by far the best and most experienced option at QB on the roster. He completed well over 60 percent of his passes, had a 14-to-3 touchdown to interception ratio and averaged 6.7 yards per attempt in 2014, nearly 1.5 yards better than O'Toole. If Lunt is healthy, Illinois (probably won't be but still) might be bowl-bound yet again, especially if Dudek gets back.

Josh Ferguson (RB) - Ferguson is a terrific option as a runner and pass-catcher. Despite running behind a below-average offensive line, he managed 5-plus yards per carry and can break off long runs if he gets to the second level.

Mike Dudek (WR) - What a weapon. His numbers as a freshman — 78 catches, 1,038 yards — ranked fifth and seventh in school history, respectively. It was indisputably the best performance from an Illini freshman wideout ever. Should he return even close to full strength, he adds a dimension to the Illini attack that not many other players in the nation can offer.

Behind Enemy Lines

Jim Vainisi from SB Nation Illinois blog The Champaign Room gives us his best- and worst-case scenarios for the Illini in 2015. And becuase he's from Illinois, he begins with the worst-case:

Worst-case sceanrio: 3-9 (0-8), Beckman fired

So much can go wrong, but let's assume that the player mistreatment allegations are proven false (almost certainly going to happen) and Beckman keeps his job for at least most of the season.

Illinois' only non-conference loss is a poor showing against North Carolina in Week 3 and the team enters Big Ten play with a 3-1 record. Unfortunately, Wes Lunt suffers another season-ending injury early in the calendar and the Illini proceed to lose their first 7 league games before heading to Chicago to defend the LOLhat. Pat Fitzgerald runs up the score and Illinois loses by, like, 35 points to finish with an overall record of 3-9 (0-8). Needless to say, Mike Thomas marches down to the 50-yard line at Soldier Field to publicly fire Beckman immediately after the game.

Best-case scenario: 8-4 (4-4), Beckman back!

Hey, Illinois is good! The Illini pull out a surprise win against the Tar Heels and enter conference play at 4-0. They lose a close game against Nebraska, but more than make up for it a few weeks later with a huge home victory over Wisconsin. A few road wins (and an ass kicking at the hands of Ohio State) later and Illinois is sitting at 7-4 for the Northwestern game. Tim Beckman and Abraham Lincoln himself lead the Illini out of the tunnel to a sea of orange—almost as if the fans had confused this with a Bears game. The Wildcats forfeit and Illinois finishes the regular season at 8-4 (4-4).

Season Prediction: 6-6 (3-5), Beckman probably retained

Kent State - W
WIU - W
@ UNC - L
MTST - W
-----------------
NEB - W
@ IOWA - L
WIS - L
@ PSU - L
@ PUR - W
OSU - L
@MINN - L
NU - W

If Illinois finishes the season at 6-6, I think the team would need to win the bowl game in order for Beckman to keep his job. Personally, I'm all for retaining Beckman if he can consistently guide us to 6 wins, but for some reason a lot of fans think we deserve better because we're Illinois. F*ck that—I'll take the bowl appearances.

Bill Connelly Says...

SB Nation college football guru Bill Connelly has been maniacally churning out previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here's an excerpt from his Illinois preview on the off-field distractions, and how they could make or break Beckman and his team this year.

Looking at things from a certain angle, you could talk yourself into Illinois being ready for another 2013-level breakthrough. Depth is questionable, but the first string could be capable of an above-average Big Ten level.

The problem is that negativity creates narratives, and it is impossible to escape it. If we've heard about the problems and potential divides in the locker room, then the players have, too. If we've heard Beckman's name listed high on hot seat lists, the players have, too.

I often say you become your record; whether you are lucky or unlucky, precedent is in your memory. Good luck becomes confidence, and bad luck becomes fear. You could make the case that a team becomes its problems, too. For every example of a team banding together to prove clubhouse unity, there are two examples of a team failing to overcome negative vibes.

Final Thoughts

Illinois and Beckman have been in the headlines this offseason for all the wrong reasons. Dudek's injury. Cvijanovic's Twitter rant. And the fallout from his accusations. Still, Wes Lunt and Josh Ferguson form a potent backfield, Dudek could be back at some point, and the defensive front seven returns almost all of last year's contributors. If players in the secondary step up, the defense could be ok. So unless everything completely falls apart...

Wait. What are we saying here. Of course things will completely fall apart. This is LOLinois. The Illini and Wildcats will meet at Soldier Field — thanks for sparing us an awful trip to Champaign, guys! — in frigid temperatures, and bowl eligibility could be on the line again. But remember, last year, Northwestern lost on purpose to preserve Beckman's job. It was a short-term sacrifice for a long-term (and comedic) gain. This year, things will be different. Northwestern will win. It will not be close. There will be no mercy.

The Game

Date: Nov. 28
Time: TBD
Home/Away: Home... YEAH WE SAID IT #CHICAGOSBIGTENTEAM
TV: TBA
Projected Betting Line: Northwestern -2.5