August creeps up on us tomorrow, and the Illini football team reports Sunday. And we are caught in a non-electric buzz produced by a university seemingly taking an unintended lead in the NCAA's call for balance between athletics and academics.
No wild ticket office assault here as sales drag. We're in a land of show-me doubters, the state's two Big Ten programs part the five have-nots averaging fewer than 50,000 bodies (the other seven span from 70,000 to 112,000).
So brace yourself. What follows is a skeptic's optimistic recitation of all the reasons why Tim Beckman's first UI squad could be successful in 2012.
My concerns are with the future, 2013 and after, not 2012. Stay with me here.
First, a look back.
We rattle off the 6-0, 0-6 record of 2011 as though those numbers arrived without detail. Let's remember that the 6-0 start included nervous wins by the margin of a field goal over Arizona State 17-14, Western Michigan 23-20 and Northwestern 38-35. Illinois managed the last score in the fourth quarter of all three.
Then Paul Petrino's offense collapsed. The Illini did not score a point in the first half of the next four games. Zero. Not even a field goal. They led Penn State 7-3 late only to see the Nittany Lions get their faulty aerial attack going with an 80-yard march on the final possession. And Ron Zook's Illini had Wisconsin on the ropes, 14-0, before giving up TD marches of 2 and 30 yards due to a dropped punt snap and a Darius Millines fumble.
OK, that's enough detail. Let's analyze what's left from a 7-6 squad that whipped UCLA 20-14 in San Francisco.
— Defense: New coordinator Tim Banks has the bulk of a unit that permitted just 19.6 points per game and ranked No. 2 in the conference in yards allowed ... ahead of such rugged stalwarts as Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Nebraska and Iowa. This is a physical unit that defended passes better in 2011 than it had in years.
Banks has credentials. His unit at Cincinnati ranked No. 6 nationally in yards allowed, and No. 2 in sacks. He inherits a squad with similar tendencies. The UI was No. 4 nationally in tackles for loss last year.
The up-front trio of Akeem Spence, Glenn Foster and Michael Buchanan, ace linebacker Jonathan Brown and senior cornerbacks Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green provide an excellent nucleus.
Don't overlook line coach Keith Gilmore. He has produced three NFL-level standouts in his three seasons: Josh Brent, Corey Liuget and Whitney Mercilus.
— Offense: Nathan Scheelhaase returns for his third season as field general, having completed 37 of 56 passes in bowl wins against Baylor and UCLA. He fits ideally into Beckman's spread concept, and junior receivers Ryan Lankford and Millines are primed to break out. Further help is coming from elusive tight end Jon Davis, who caught 22 passes as a freshman.
As always happens, young offensive linemen have ballooned, and we now see sophomore Michael Heitz and redshirt Ted Karras among those at 300 or better.
Co-coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty have high-level experience, Gonzales having served on two national champions at Florida and as passing game coordinator at LSU the last two years.
— Special Teams: How can it not be better? You could argue that, except for graduated kicker Derek Dimke, Zook's special teams were the worst among 120 schools. Coach Tim Salem has a history of accomplishments in this area. The mere fact that touchbacks on kickoffs are returned to the 25 (new rule) will improve the UI's starting position.
— Coaching strategy: This was considered Zook's weakness, and by 2010 he had relinquished much of his control to coordinators. Beckman is in charge. Clock management will be better.
If the Illini remain healthy — permit one sour note: depth is a concern — they should be considered equal or favored against their first five opponents.
This includes the early date at Arizona State, which finds itself with a new coaching staff (Pitt's Todd Graham replaced Dennis Erickson), a new quarterback (new Bronco Brock Osweiler threw for 4,036 yards and 26 TDs last season), and a rebuilt defensive unit missing four key linebackers including the vaunted Vontaze Burfict. The reshaped Sun Devils are rated near the bottom of the Pac-12 after losing six of their last seven games and permitting 103 points in the last two.
The opening Big Ten game here against Penn State is too weird to project. Clearly, the Nittany Lions will be charged up and motivated about Beckman's interest in their players. And they'll undoubtedly be better this season than in future years as the penalties steadily take a toll. But Illinois has no deficit in talent as of Sept. 29.
This is one of seven home games offering clear opportunity. Charleston Southern didn't win a game last season. Western Michigan and Louisiana Tech deserve respect — Beware! Western Michgigan's pro-bound Alex Carder fired seven TD passes against Beckman's Toledo team last year — but Illinois has the edge. If Beckman can keep his starters intact, the last three home games against Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue are winnable ... and the Illini could make it three straight against Northwestern in the Evanston finale.
There you have it. It's no stretch to say Illinois will be in the tossup or better category in nine games this season. It's not unreasonable to foresee six or seven wins. As for the showdowns with Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State, I'll discuss those after my shrink signs the release papers.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.