Next up in our preseason chats is Illinois. Tom Fornelli of The Champaign Room was kind enough to answer some questions about the Illini, Tim Beckman and inconsistency.
1. Last year was a disaster in almost every sense, going 2-10 overall and 0-8 in the Big Ten. If you can, explain in a few sentences why everything went wrong for Tim Beckman in 2012.
This was a team that just wasn't in good shape when he got here. People mention how the Illini went to bowl games the previous two seasons, but they did so with 6-6 records in the regular season. And before winning the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against a UCLA team that was also coachless, the Illini had lost their last six regular season games.
Then just about all the top talent and playmakers on both sides of the ball left for the NFL.
So Beckman walked in to a program that had a serious lack of depth thanks to NFL departures and some lackluster recruiting by Ron Zook in his last couple seasons. It wasn't set up for immediate success, and while Beckman and his coaching staff certainly had a role to play in last season's failures with in-game management, the injuries and lack of depth killed a team that folks had higher expectations for than they should have.
2. Moving forward, you and many Illinois fans were quick to defend Beckman after he ended up on Stewart Mandel's five worst coaches. Beckman obviously deserves more time, and has found success in his past, but what aspects give you hope for Illinois in 2013?
It was obvious last season that there was a disconnect between Beckman's coaching staff and the players on the field, and maybe even with fellow coaches on the sideline. So Beckman made sweeping changes to his staff and addressed the problem. Also, while his 2013 recruiting class may not have been ranked one of the best in the country, I think it will go a long way toward bringing depth to the roster, and with the Wes Lunt transfer and some other members of the 2014 class I think Beckman is starting to find some playmakers that can really help on offense. Combine that with a new offensive coordinator in Bill Cubit who has proven he can run a successful offense, and there's more reason to be optimistic. Though I don't think we'll see the effects of it until 2014.
3. I was stunned to see Nathan Scheelhaase is a senior. It feels like he's still a freshman, but maybe that's because Illinois and MSU haven't met since 2010 (in front of King Leonidas). What's the quarterback situation look like, and can Scheelhaase meet the potential we saw early in his career?
I don't think there's any doubt that as long as he remains healthy that Scheelhaase is going to be Illinois' starter in 2013. Where things could get interesting is if and when Aaron Bailey sees the field. He was the prize of the 2013 class, and he could prove to be the kind of playmaker this offense needs. Though he's going to need time to acclimate himself to what is now essentially a pass-first offense after running the option in high school.
As for Scheelhaase's living up to the hype from his freshman season, his career will not reach the level Illini fans had hoped for back then. However I do feel the new offense will be much better for him as it relies on shorter, quicker passing routes. If he stays healthy I expect him to put a nice cap on his Illinois career.
4. Every year, Illinois gets a few players drafted. They're always a talented team, but rarely put it all together for wins. Why has it been so hard for the Illini to find consistent success?
A lack of consistency. Bill Cubit will be the fourth offensive coordinator Nathan Scheelhaase has worked with in his four years here. Save for last year the Illinois defense has generally been pretty solid, but it's been the offense that's bi-polar. But until there's consistency in the coaching staff it's going to be hard to show consistency on the field.
5. MSU and Illinois have met twice in the past six seasons. The programs have been inconsistent for 20 years, but the Spartans haven't lost in Champaign since 1992. What needs to happen for the Illini to break the streak?
For the Illini this year it'll be pretty basic. To beat Michigan State, they'll have to limit the turnovers and mistakes that plagued the team last season and hope the defense can limit a Michigan State offense that was pretty miserable itself last season. The Illini don't have the offensive firepower to outscore teams yet, but if the defense can hold Sparty to 17-21 points then they can win the game. Personally I'm expecting a low-scoring game that has both fan bases banging their head into a wall while just waiting for it to end.
6. With MSU, Nebraska and Northwestern as cross-over games and Washington in nonconference play, Illinois has a fairly difficult schedule. Can the Illini reach a bowl game this season?
If they do, I'll be shocked. While I expect wins against Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio), it's hard to find four more wins on this schedule. Cincinnati and Washington are two tough non-conference games for this team, and the most winnable conference games against Indiana and Purdue both come on the road this year. So, in order for the Illini to reach a bowl game they'd basically have to go undefeated in non-conference play and then hope to pull off at least one upset in conference play. And I set the odds of that happening at NOPE.
Thanks again to Tom for answering some questions. Check out The Champaign Room for all things Illini.