Reaching a bowl Game is the next task at hand for Illinois and head coach Tim Beckman. They finally broke their winless streak in the Big Ten last year, but still have only one win in their last 22 Conference Games. With a decent amount of starters returning and a new quarterback that might be an upgrade, there is some optimism that a postseason appearance could be coming.
Despite losing Four-year starting QB Nathan SCheelhaase, the Fighting Illini are actually in a good spot with their QB. They picked up former Oklahoma State starter Wes LUnt and he’ll likely be the No. 1 from the start unless injuries derail his playing time again (like at OSU). With coordinator Bill Cubit running a quick-read, pass-heavy offense, it wouldn’t be surprising if LUnt’s numbers are better than SCheelhaase’s from last year.
They lose their top three receivers, but in this offense it’s not all that hard to find new targets. Plus, they use their running backs a ton in the receiving Game, hence RB Josh Ferguson’s 50 receptions from a year ago. Ferguson is back as only a junior after compiling more than 1,300 total yards from scrimmage last season. He’ll be used a ton along with transfer Geronimo Allison. The offensive line returns Four starters which should help running this offense.
While the offense turned things around in 2013, the defense still struggled to do much. They gave up at least 34 points eight different times and allowed 50-plus points three times. That’s not going to win many Games.
They don’t lose a whole lot from last year so there’s at least some experience returning and according to the coaches, they like what they see so far from the unit. Of course, coaches will always say that. Illinois moved some players around like Earnest Thomas III from strong safety to linebacker. Their run defense will have to improve the most, while the secondary might see the most improvement according to Beckman.
If the Illini can win their three non-Conference home Games, that will help a bit in their bowl aspirations. Western Kentucky will be a tough, but winnable Game, while they’ll have a hard time at Washington. They have Four difficult road Games in Big Ten play, but their home Games could all be wins if things work out the way as planned. Purdue, who they beat last year, needs to be a win again and they’ll probably need two of the three from Minnesota, Iowa and Penn State to get that sixth win.
With how their defense looked last season, it’s kind of hard to put much trust into them though, even with LUnt at quarterback. Illinois might be a nice pick for early season spreads because of their high-scoring offense which scored 42-plus points in three of their first Four Games in 2013.
2014 Illinois Football Schedule
Aug. 30 vs. Youngstown State
Sep. 6 vs. Western Kentucky
Sep. 13 at Washington
Sep. 20 vs. Texas State
Sep. 27 at Nebraska
Oct. 4 vs. Purdue
Oct. 11 at Wisconsin
Oct. 25 vs. Minnesota
Nov. 1 at Ohio State
Nov. 15 vs. Iowa
Nov. 22 vs. Penn State
Nov. 29 at Northwestern