Three questions with: Tom Dienhart, a senior writer with BTN.com
What does Illinois need to improve upon in 2014 for Tim Beckman to feel safe about his job status?
Bill Cubit has fixed the offense. Now it’s time for the defense to rise. The unit struggled mightily in 2013, finishing 10th in scoring defense; 11th in total defense; 12th in rushing defense; 12th in pass-efficiency defense. And more turnovers are needed, as Illinois produced a Big Ten low with just three interceptions. More sacks will help, as the Illini ranked 11th in the Big Ten with just 15. The line is key for coordinator Tim Banks. Any difference-makers?
Outside of Braxton Miller, who is the best returning player, offense or defense, in the Big Ten and why?
On offense, I like Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon. I think he’s a legit Heisman contender after running for 1,609 yards (7.8 ypc) in 2013. The junior has go-the-distance speed and toughness to work between the tackles. On defense, I have to go with Michigan State junior end Shilique Calhoun, who established himself as a force off the edge who can make plays. Big, strong, fast, tough, Calhoun epitomizes the “Spartan Dawg” defense.
What Big Ten team is poised to surprise people next year and why?
Minnesota. At one point last year, Jerry Kill’s team was 8-2. ... Still, the program continues to forge into new ground, as it won four Big Ten games in a row at one point for the first time since 1973. Fourteen starters (seven on each side of the ball) are back from that team. If the defense builds on last season, when it ranked fourth in the league by allowing just 22.2 points per game, and the offense augments a passing game that ranked last in the Big Ten, the Gophers have a shot to seriously contend in a Big Ten West that lacks a dominant team.