2014 CFN Preview - Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois RB Josh Ferguson
Illinois RB Josh Ferguson
Posted May 29, 2014

CollegeFootballNews.com Preview 2014 - Can the Illini find any sort of consistency in a make-or-break year? (Getty Images)

Illinois Fighting Illini

Preview 2014

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- 2014 Illinois Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players
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Head coach: Tim Beckman
3rd year: 6-18
6th year overall: 27-34
Returning Lettermen
Off: 21, Def. 24, ST 3
Lettermen Lost: 16
Ten Best Illini Players
1. SS Earnest Thomas, Sr.
2. LB Mason Monheim, Jr.
3. QB Wes Lunt, Soph.
4. RB Josh Ferguson, Jr.
5. CB V'Angelo Bentley, Jr.
6. QB Reilly O'Toole, Sr.
7. DE Paul James, Fr.
8. OT Simon Cvijanovic, Sr.
9. P Justin DuVernois, Sr.
10. TE Jon Davis, Sr.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 Youngstown State
Sep. 6 WKU
Sep. 13 at Washington
Sep. 20 Texas State
Sep. 27 at Nebraska
Oct. 4 Purdue
Oct. 11 at Wisconsin
Oct. 25 Minnesota
Nov. 1 at Ohio State
Nov. 15 Iowa
Nov. 22 Penn State
Nov. 29 at Northwestern

Is it possible for an entire program to call a timeout to regroup?

Not in a Death Penalty sort of way, but maybe Illinois can just take a little break, collect its thoughts, take a deep breath, and really figure this out, because all the pieces should be there to be better at playing college football and it's just not happening.

This is the program of Red Grange and Dick Butkus, and it's a program that's tasted just enough success to appear to be on the verge of doing something big, but it's not taking any real forward-thinking steps to generate any sort of interest.

The University of Missouri is only a few hours to the left, and it's not like Gary Pinkel walked into a burgeoning powerhouse of a program. Last year the Tigers were a win away from playing for the national title.

Minnesota has a palace of a new stadium to sell to recruits – as well as a great history of its own – and Wisconsin was a total disaster until Barry Alvarez took over 25 years ago. What is Illinois selling and what's its pitch?

Northwestern has an ad campaign rolling boasting that it's Chicago's Big Ten team. Can you imagine Vanderbilt trying to claim that it's Nashville's SEC team? And why can Northwestern do this? Because it's right, and not just because of geography.

Illinois can be really, really strong, but it needs to decide 1) if Tim Beckman is the type of head coach who can punch his weight with the better coaches and teams in the Big Ten and 2) what it wants to do if and when the first question has already been answered.

There are now 14 teams in the Big Ten, and Illinois was dead last in the 2014 Scout.com Big Ten recruiting rankings. Granted, the 2013 class was solid, but the 2012 haul was awful. Unless you're Wisconsin and you recruit parts to an already established system, you can't be looking up at Purdue, Minnesota and Indiana in the recruiting world and expect to make much headway. The players aren't there, the system isn't special, and there's nothing happening to suggest that anything massive is about to change this year to create a spark. And no, spiffy new uniforms don't count.

The chance was there to get Bobby Petrino, but that's gone now. James Franklin would've been an almost perfect hire in terms of firing up the base and generating some semblance of enthusiasm in the Chicago market, but he took his talents to State College.

Where's the Illini's Kliff Kingsbury?

So now it's up to Beckman to do something magical. He has a nice coaching staff around him, 18 starters are back, and he's been on the job just long enough to know what he needs to do. Former Oklahoma State starting quarterback Wes Lunt is ready to roll, nine of the top 11 tacklers are returning, and there's a good-looking backfield that could shine with a little help from the offensive line.

But is it enough? Is just being bowl eligible what Illinois is aspiring to? The program can and should be so much more, and if Beckman is the guy to make that happen, he needs to show this year that it's possible.

What to watch for on offense: Can the O bomb away enough to make up for the concerns on defense? It couldn't last year, but the attack turned out to be a positive finishing 46th in the nation helped by a dangerous and efficient passing game. The loss of QB Nathan Scheelhaase doesn't matter with a possible upgrade at the position in Wes Lunt, while backup Riley O'Toole looked good enough this offseason to push for the starting job. The problem is at receiver where Steve Hull, Miles Osei, Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford are done. Fortunately, Josh Ferguson and the ground game should be able to pick up the slack at times, but it's going to take a major push to improve with several new parts to the puzzle. Averaging 29.7 points per game last year didn't get the job done. It might take 35 points a game to be in the discussion.

What to watch for on defense: The secondary has to show up. It was trial by fire for a young group of defensive backs last season, but to be fair, they got almost no help from the defensive front that failed to generate much of a pass rush on a regular basis. The offense tried its best to hold on to the ball and keep up the pace, but it didn't matter thanks to a defense that gave up big plays like it was trying to. The Illini allowed 200 passing yards or more seven times and 300 yards or more in four games. On the plus side, the pass defense got a wee bit better as the season went on – at least until it gave up 414 yards and four scores in the season finale against Northwestern. However, that was partially due to offenses having so much fun running the ball at will. There's upside in the Illinois defensive back field with Earnest Thomas and V'Angelo Bentley two of the team's top players, but they need some help, and they need to …

The team will be far better if… the defense can generate a turnover. The D needs to be more disruptive in general with the pass rush needing to find a groove and a dangerous force who can get behind the line, but coming up with takeaways is the No. 1 priority after picking off a mere three passes last year and coming up with just eight fumbles. The Illini won the turnover battle just three times, and they were just +1 in all three games. Ironically, Illinois was only -2 or worse in three games and won two of them – Miami University and Purdue. The team isn't good enough to not need every break possible.

The Schedule: The Illini can't afford to blow any of the easy non-conference layups. Youngstown State, WKU and Texas State are all winnable, but the date in Seattle against Chris Petersen's Washington Huskies isn't. Being 3-1 going into conference play is a must.

Starting out the Big Ten with a trip to Nebraska isn't good, but the follow-up against Purdue can't be a misfire – it might be the only real chance for a win the rest of the way with a trip to Wisconsin up next. There's a week off before hosting Minnesota, but a road game at Ohio State follows before getting another week off. The team doesn't have to leave Illinois after November 1st, closing out with Iowa and Penn State at home and Northwestern in Evanston.

Best offensive player: Sophomore QB Wes Lunt. The tall talent who started his first game as a true freshman at Oklahoma State was considering the Illini during the recruiting process, and now he has his starting job – maybe. Riley O'Toole did a great job at times this spring considering the receivers were shaky at best, but Lunt has the tools and the skills to be the catalyst for a big offensive year. He needs to be protected – forget about any appreciable rushing yards – but he has the arm to make everyone around him better. Nathan Scheelhaase was a good quarterback. Lunt has the potential to be great.

Best defensive player: Senior SS Earnest Thomas. It's hard to praise anyone in the secondary too much considering all the problems and issues, but Thomas did everything he could to do his part finishing second on the team in tackles and doing a decent job helping out when the ball was in the air. Big and experienced, he knows how to pop and can be used like another linebacker at times or as a nickel back – it's his secondary to run. There's upside and athleticism around him, but he needs to be the one who sets the tone.

Key players to a successful season: Senior WR Martize Barr. Or junior WR Justin Hardee. Or sophomore WR Dionte Taylor. Or senior TE Jon Davis. Or senior TE Matt LaCosse. The Illini quarterback situation will be more than fine with either Lunt or O'Toole handling the work, but someone needs to get the ball with 148 catches from the top four wide receivers all gone. It would be nice if a No. 1 guy could emerge in a hurry early on, but it didn't happen in spring ball and there were way too many mistakes – there's no polish. Receiver is the team's biggest issue, and that's with a defense that got lit up like a Christmas tree last year.

The season will be a success if ... the Illini go bowling. There's absolutely no excuse not to get another game with a nice schedule full of almost certain wins. If there's going to be any sort of improvement overall this year, Illinois has to beat Youngstown State, WKU, Texas State, Purdue and Minnesota all at home. Right there is a one game improvement over 2013, and there has to be an upside somewhere along the way against a team like Iowa or Northwestern or Penn State. Does six wins and a bowl keep Beckman around? Anything less won't do it.

Key game: Oct. 25 vs. Minnesota. If everything plays out like it's supposed to, Illinois will lose at Washington and Nebraska and should be able to get by the three easy early games – Youngstown State, WKU and Texas State, and it needs to get by Purdue, or else. So if this season is going to work, being 4-2 is more than just possible. With road games at Wisconsin and Ohio State still to deal with, and with a few other tough battles ahead, getting that fifth win before November should set things up to finish with at least six wins and bowl eligibility.

2013 Fun Stats:
- 1st Quarter Scoring: Opponents 108 – Illinois 41
- Rushing Yards: Opponents 2,863 – Illinois 1,668
- Interceptions Thrown: Illinois 14 – Opponents 3

- 2014 Illinois Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players