OK, introductions are out of the way. Now it’s time to dive in to the season.
I decided early on not to set any expectations or to define what’s a success for this year’s Illini squad. I’m just going to sit back, watch things unfold, and hope for the best. Why? Because I don’t think it’s wise to set expectations, no matter how high or low, for a team coming off a 2-10 year under a first year head coach in a program that’s struggled to have consistent success. At this point, baby steps, not dinosaur steps, are the key. I do, however, have plenty of observations and things I’ll be keeping an eye on this year:
- Illinois’ offensive coordinator position has been a revolving door recently, so for me Bill Cubit is the X-factor of the Illini season. Plenty of callers to the WDWS football postgame show were clamoring for Reilly O’Toole to replace Nathan Scheelhaase when Nate was struggling last year. But it was clear that wasn’t likely to happen, since last year’s co-OCs had a ground-based offensive gameplan. Under Cubit, I’m looking to see more of a balance between the pass and the run. Regarding the passing game, Coach Beckman commented on what he’s looking for out of his receivers during his media day press conference.
If the offense clicks early and often, that’ll lead to more confidence in Cubit and a longer tenure for him in Champaign.And that’s a good thing, since I believe he’s the right man for the job.
(Blogger’s note – don’t confuse Bill Cubit with Rob Cupit. Bill = Illini OC, formerly of Western Michigan. Rob = former Eastern Michigan hockey player who likes stompin’ mudholes and walkin’ ‘em dry when on the ice in Champaign.)
- Another glaring question mark, of course, is the thin/young ranks on the defensive side of the ball, with only four starters returning. By that I mean there’s a mix on the two-deep of veterans, JUCO newcomers, and underclassmen. If the latter two groups have to see playing time, that’s where you start to get a bit nervous. I sure as heck wouldn’t want my first game as a college football player to be against the likes of Ohio State or Nebraska. My glimmers of hope in this area are Jonathan Brown and Houston Bates, who bring leadership to the table, and Mason Monheim, who surprised many in his rookie campaign. V’Angelo Bentley gets consistent positive reviews from the coaches as well. If those four can keep the troops banded together, it will go a long way. Here’s Coach Becks on the young defense, the corners and the secondary in particular.
- And we can forget about the quarterback of course. Those same WDWS callers who wanted to see O’Toole last year are already prognosticating that we’ll see Aaron Bailey sooner rather than later. I’m not buying that right now. Coach Beckman has shown a loyalty to Nathan Scheelhaase, so it’ll take a drastic downturn in play or a major injury to get him off the field. Of course, since the QB is the most visible player on the team, Nathan bears much of the praise or criticism for week to week, whether deservedly so or not. But he’s proven he can handle it, and he and the rest of his teammates are probably going to have to handle more of it again this year. Whether the team bands together or falls apart a la Zook’s final year will have a big impact on the latter half of the season.
- On this final point, I’m curious as to what you all think. Is it too early to call this a make or break year for Tim Beckman? He had plenty of heat on him at the end of last year (albeit some made up by Chicago media), yet if we look at recent results, it seems like the grace period for Illini football coaches is two years. Ron Turner went 0-11 and 3-8 before an 8-4 bowl appearance, and Ron Zook went 2-9 and 2-10 before the Rose Bowl season. And yes, I’m aware those were under a different athletic director. Let’s just call a compromise and say the margin for error is thin.
So what are we looking at big picture? I’ll let Lloyd Christmas sum it up…
- Big gulps, huh? All right!
Now let’s turn our focus to the Salukis…
Like the Illini, SIU’s offense is ahead of its defense to start the year, with just five starters returning on D, a strong offensive line, some incoming transfers at running back, and an All-American tight end. It’s interesting to note, though, that the team’s offense output was all over the board last year…sometimes blanking teams 35-0 and other times being shutout or only mustering a field goal. The league’s coaches don’t expect the doggies to shock the world with a preseason pick of seven in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Couple that with the Illini’s success against FCS teams (12-0 with a 33 point average margin of victory), and I think this is one of the few times this year where you can confidently pencil in a W.
MY PREDICTION: Illinois 31, SIU 10
So after my probably-too-long diatribe, it’s your turn. Leave me your score prediction and analysis in a comment below or via e-mail. And again, have fun with this. Friendly banter is encouraged.
Other random thoughts (you’ll get used to these):
- Camp Rantoul has long passed, but I wanted to get your opinions on it if you attended a practice. Other than the scrimmage snafu, all reports seem positive, with great promotions and fan-player-coach interaction. With my work schedule, I couldn’t make a weekday practice, so I was a bit disappointed to see no open Saturday practice, but that’s probably being too nit pickity. There’s a small part of me that thinks Coach Beckman would rather have all of training camp in Champaign, and who wouldn’t want to with the facilities there. But given how much Camp Rantoul means to the community, I expect to see this current week-long set up continue for the time being.
- Another Illini Soccer broadcast comes your way this Sunday at 7, as Brian Moline and myself have the call of Illinois vs. Illinois State. We saw a Cena-Punk-esque battle between these two teams last year, and I expect another this go around. Though it will be hard to top our last broadcast, a thrilling 5-4 OT Illini win.
- Speaking of our broadcasts, we have brand new equipment (see photo below) this year that allows us to broadcast via an Internet connection rather than a phone line. That means crystal clear audio with less equipment clutter. If you can believe it, we’re currently running broadcasts from Florida with this equipment, and we could even do a voice-quality broadcast from an iPhone if we wanted. Our engineer Ed Bond is gushing over the technology, and I admit I kind of am too. Give a listen and let us know how it sounds.
Coming up Saturday night: SIU recap, prediction standings, and a Cincinnati preview