ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
2012 record: 2-10 (0-8 Big Ten)
Returning offensive starters (8): QB Nathan Scheelhaase, RB Donovonn Young, WR Spencer Harris, WR Ryan Lankford, G Ted Karras, Te Jon Davis, G Michael Heitz, T Simon Cvijanovic
Projected starting offense: QB Nathan Scheelhaase, sr., 6-3, 200; RB Donovonn Young, jr., 6-0, 200; WR Ryan Lankford, sr., 6-0, 175; WR Miles Osei, sr., 6-0, 200; WR Spencer Harris, sr., 6-3, 195; TE Jon Davis, jr., 6-3, 240; T Simon Cvijanovic, jr., 6-5, 295; G Michael Heitz, jr., 6-5, 305; C Alex Hill, jr., 6-3, 325; G Ted Karras, so., 6-4, 300; T Corey Lewis, sr., 6-6, 310
Returning defensive starters (4): LB Johnathan Brown, LB Mason Monheim, DE Tim Kynard, S Earnest Thomas
Projected starting defense: DE Tim Kynard, sr., 6-3, 260; NT Jake Howe, jr., 6-3, 295; DT Austin Teitmsa, jr., 6-2, 280; DE Houston Bates, jr., 6-3, 240; LB Johnathan Brown, sr., 6-1, 235; MLB Mason Monheim, so., 6-1, 230; LB/S Eric Finney, so., 6-1, 205; CB V'Angelo Bentley, so., 5-10, 180; CB Eaton Spencer, so., 6-0, 18; S Earnest Thomas, jr., 6-2, 210; S Taylor Barton, fr., 6-1, 210
Return specialists: (2): K Taylor Zalewski, so., 6-3, 200; P Justin DuVernois, jr., 6-1, 190
Key losses: OL Graham Pocic, OL Hugh Thornton, DE Michael Buchanan, DL Akeem Spence, CB Terry Hawthorne
Key additions: QB Aaron Bailey, 6-2, 220; DB Caleb Day, 6-1, 190; TE Tyler White, 6-5, 245; DL Jarrod Clements, 6-3, 275; DL Abe Cajuste, 6-3, 290; QB Wes Lunt, 6-5, 220 (transfer from Oklahoma State)
2012 review: There was nothing redeeming about Illinois' 2011 season, and it was bad even before it started.
After the NCAA ruled Penn State players could leave immediately for instant eligibility, a full crew of Illinois assistant coaches converged at State College to pick at the Nittany Lions' carcass in late July. New Illinois head coach Tim Beckman contradicted himself on Big Ten media day when asked if he had spoken with Penn State's Bill O'Brien about sending coaches to his area. Beckman replied: "Great question. Of course this morning we met as head football coaches and athletic directors. I spoke with Coach O'Brien, but not in depth, about that situation." When O'Brien was asked if he had talked to Beckman, O'Brien replied "No."
That little trip-up was just the precursor to the season for Illinois. After a season-opening win against Western Michigan, Illinois was crushed 45-14 at Arizona State. The Illini rebounded against FCS Charleston Southern (5-6) but failed to gain any traction the rest of the season. Only once in their final nine games did the Illini compete within one score of an opponent. In that span, Illinois lost by an average score of 37-13. Illinois gave up more than 50 points to Louisiana Tech, Ohio State and Northwestern. The Illini scored just seven against Penn State, three against Minnesota and were shut out 45-0 by Michigan.
Illinois now has a 14-game Big Ten losing streak. It's possible it could extend well into this season.
2013 schedule: A31 Southern Illinois; S7 Cincinnati; S14 Washington (Chicago); S28 Miami (Ohio); O5 at Nebraska; O19 Wisconsin; O26 Michigan State; N2 at Penn State; N9 at Indiana; N16 Ohio State; N23 at Purdue; N30 Northwestern
Key stretch: Illinois needs to gain confidence early in the season, especially against major-conference schools Cincinnati and Washington. Both squads were 2012 bowl teams and both games are scheduled in Illinois -- Washington faces the Illini at Chicago's Soldier Field. If Illini can show improvement and gain a win or two in those games, it's possible they could rebound into respectability this year. But if the Illini blow both games, the heat will be on Beckman.
Trap game: Miami (Ohio). Illinois scheduled a MAC tune-up before its Big Ten opener at Nebraska. The RedHawks were 4-8 last year but return 14 starters. Miami (Ohio) faces a grueling early schedule with games at Marshall and Kentucky followed with a home rivalry game against Cincinnati. The RedHawks could view Illinois as a chance to win at a Big Ten opponent, and Illinois' frame of mind after facing Cincinnati and Washington is important entering this game.
Glass half-full: Illinois returns a veteran quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase, who has produced in the past. He struggled like the team last year, throwing for just four touchdowns and eight interceptions. But he also led the Illini to a 6-0 start and a bowl game win in 2011. Illinois also returns backup Reilly O'Toole, its top three leading rushers, its top two receivers and three offensive linemen. Outside of Nebraska, Illinois faces its tougher opponents at home (Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State). A 3-1 start in the non-conference could propel Illinois toward a bowl game with late-season clashes against Indiana and Purdue.
Tackle Corey Lewis received a sixth year of eligibility and he's one of four offensive linemen returning with significant experience.
Glass half-empty: Only four starters return on defense, which had talent but performed in mediocre fashion last year. Should Illinois drop a pair of non-conference games to Cincinnati and Washington, negative energy could unravel the program. Opening up the Big Ten slate against heavyweights Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State could rock a team with a fragile ego. If the Illini sit somewhere around 2-6 after playing at Penn State and in the midst of an 18-game Big Ten losing streak, fans likely will call for Tim Beckman's job. If that happens, based on his 2011 performance, it's probable he won't last past Dec. 2.
The Iowa angle: There really isn't one right now. But there's a starchy history between the programs, and it won't take much for the series to reignite into a rivalry.
The teams last played in 2008 -- three days before Barack Obama was elected president. Illinois squandered a 24-7 lead only to rebound with a last-minute field goal to beat Iowa. When the Big Ten was an 11-team conference, the teams rotated off one another's schedule in 2009 and 2010. When Nebraska joined the league in 2011, Illinois and Iowa missed each other for both the 2011-12 and 2013-14 cycles. The scheduled six-year absence is the Big Ten's longest among league teams since Illinois and Iowa avoided one other from 1952 through 1967 after an infamous apple-throwing incident.
But the teams will miss one another just five years, not six. With the Big Ten realigning into East-West divisions in 2014, Iowa and Illinois are scheduled to meet every season. The 2104 game is set in Champaign, and the Illini travel to Kinnick Stadium in 2015 -- their first trip to Iowa City since 2007.
On a side note, Illinois will lose more rivalries than perhaps any team in the new realignment. Gaining Iowa back was important for Illinois supporters, but its annual battle with Indiana is shelved. One of the nation's oldest traveling trophies, the Illibuck, also will go from an annual game to an irregular schedule. Illinois and Ohio State had played all but two years (2003, 2004) from 1914 through the present. This year will be their 100th meeting. Illinois and Michigan also have played 94 times and will remain in opposite divisions.
Quotable: “I think after 15 practices, we got better every day. We still have a ways to go, but I'm proud of the way the young men responded. For us and for the youth on this football team, it's very, very important that we take every day and try to establish that winning attitude that we need to do to be successful by winning each day.” — Illinois Coach Tim Beckman