CHAMPAIGN - Last week, I worked feverishly on several season preview stories, including this game-by-game prediction preview.
When news broke Friday that Illinois had dismissed head coach Tim Beckman, I feared I’d have to scrap all the hours of work.
Yet, when I started delving more into my season prediction, I found Beckman’s departure did little to change my thoughts about this team’s outlook in 2015.
That’s a credit to what I think of interim head coach Bill Cubit, and likely a statement of how I felt Beckman affected games. Regardless, my prediction did not change due to Friday’s shocking news.
Now, let me share a not-so-well-kept secret with you: I hate making predictions.
Some may think that’s my job. I don’t see it that way. My job is to observe, report and analyze.
I don’t have a crystal ball. I can’t foresee all the struggles and successes Illinois football will go through this season. If I did, I’d probably go Marty McFly and try to make some serious cash off of it.
But since I am one of those outside the Illinois football offices who has watched this team practice more than most, I understand my opinion of what this team can accomplish carries at least a little bit of weight.
And I get it: predictions are fun.
I know I will be held to this projection. I know some fans think I will be drinking Kool-Aid or I know some in the football office may even be mad at me. But this is my honest opinion about what I think this team can accomplish (based on what I saw during training camp) and what I know/have read about their opponents.
Week 1 - vs. Kent State
History is on the Illini’s side. They have won 17 straight home openers by an average of 24 points. The Golden Flashes went just 2-9 last year (one game was canceled due to inclement weather) and are 6-17 in two years under head coach Paul Haynes, but Kent State returns 17 starters so it may rise from the bottom of the MAC to the middle tier. With Beckman’s unprecedented dismissal a week before the game, the Golden Flashes may have the opportunity to pounce on a distracted, over-emotional Illini team. Or they may face a focused, determined team ready to take out their frustrations. I’m going with the latter
Projection: Illinois 34, Kent State 14 (Illini 1-0)
Week 2 - vs. Western Illinois
The Leathernecks are getting paid a lot of money to bus over from Macomb and lose. Last season, Western Illinois finished 5-7 overall and 3-5 in the Missouri Valley, the best conference in the FCS. Illinois won the prior meeting (2007) by a score of 21-0 but expect Wes Lunt, Josh Ferguson and the rest of the Illini offense to have their way.
Projection: Illinois 45, Western Illinois 13 (Illini 2-0)
Week 3 - @ North Carolina
History is not on the Illini’s side here. Illinois hasn’t won a nonconference road game since topping Syracuse in 2007 and have lost 12 of their last 13 road openers by an average of 18 points. The Tar Heels are talented but are coming off a disappointing Year Three under head coach Larry Fedora in which they finished 6-7 and suffered four blowout losses. Former Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was relieved of his duties after the Tar Heels allowed an ACC-worst 36.4 points per game and was replaced by former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik. UNC’s defense remains vulnerable but the offense -- led by dangerous dual threat Marquise Williams Jr. (I know he had a bad game vs. South Carolina in the opener), a stable of talented receivers and one of the ACC’s best offensive lines -- will be tough to handle for an Illini defense that lacks top-end speed.
Projection: North Carolina 38, Illinois 34 (Illini 2-1)
Week 4 - vs. Middle Tennessee State
The toughest of the three non-power five conference opponents on the Illini’s schedule, the Blue Raiders have won 22 games the past three seasons and competed well against Minnesota (35-24 loss) last season. Middle Tennessee State returns 16 starters with most of their strengths on defense. The Illini should have enough offensive firepower to overwhelm the Blue Raiders, though this could be a competitive one.
Projection: Illinois 31, Middle Tennessee State 21 (Illini 3-1)
Week 5 - vs. Nebraska
Unfortunately, the Illini open Big Ten play against Nebraska for the third straight season. Unlike the last two, this one at least is at home. The Cornhuskers lost two elite talents (running back Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Randy Gregory) but still might have the most talented, well-rounded roster in the Big Ten West. Their recent offensive style -- physical ground and pound with a dual-threat quarterback (Tommy Armstrong Jr.) and number of different running backs (this season, Imani Cross, Terrell Newby and freshman Mikale Wilbon) -- has demolished Illinois lately. Does that style change much with new head coach Mike Riley, who prefers a more pro-style offense? If he’s smart, it won’t for this game.
Projection: Nebraska 35, Illinois 24 (Illini 3-2, 0-1 Big Ten)
Week 6 - @ Iowa
I’ve had this game circled all offseason. Iowa have experienced the extended streak of above-average Big Ten consistency for which the Illini strive. But the Hawkeyes -- whose fans seem to be experiencing Kirk Ferentz fatigue -- have stagnated a bit. Still, their line play on both defense and offense has been light years ahead of the Illini, and they proved it again last year with a 30-14 romp of the Illini at Memorial Stadium last year. For me, this is the Illini’s “prove it” game of 2015. The Illini have huge advantages over the Hawkeyes at the play-making skill positions. But can the Illini offensive and defensive lines finally hold their own against good Big Ten fronts? For me, this is the Illini’s chance to get a signature victory -- for them anyway -- and set the foundation for the next head coach. And for whatever reason, I think they get it done.
Projection: Illinois 28, Iowa 24 (Illini 4-2, 1-1 Big Ten)
Week 7 - BYE
An extra week of good vibes -- and rest -- before Bucky comes to town.
Week 8 - vs. Wisconsin
The Badgers lost record-setting running back Melvin Gordon and the starting offensive line but the Badgers system remains the same under new head coach Paul Chryst. And it’s probably too much of a well-oiled machine for the Illini to stop. The strength of the Badgers is on defense, where Chryst retained defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and returns six starters from the Big Ten’s best scoring defense.
Projection: Wisconsin 27, Illinois 14 (Illini 4-3, 1-2 Big Ten)
Week 9 - @ Penn State
Christian Hackenberg and Wes Lunt have a lot in common from a physical standpoint, even if Hackenberg receives a lot more hype. That alone makes this a fun matchup. Both pocket passers have suffered due to poor offensive line play, but both have a stable of talented receivers. Both programs have suffered from poor special teams play recently too. But Penn State has a big advantage on defense, especially on the defensive line. James Franklin’s program might not be ready to compete for a Big Ten championship yet, but he is recruiting like a fiend and the program is finally regaining depth thanks to the NCAA lifting scholarship sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky fallout.
Projection: Penn State 27, Illinois 24 (Illini 4-4, 1-3 Big Ten)
Week 10 - @ Purdue
Purdue, which is 4-20 overall and 1-15 during Big Ten play under head coach Darrell Hazell, knocked off Illinois last season (38-27) and nearly knocked off Illinois during a winless Big Ten season in 2013. Pressure is on Hazell to show more improvement (the Boilers lost conference games by an average of 11 ppg last season a decrease from 26 ppg in 2013). Purdue returns 15 starters and feature a solid offensive line, but they seriously lack offensive playmakers after losing Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert. The defense isn’t much better. A must-win road game for the Illini.
Projection: Illinois 31, Purdue 17 (Illini 5-4, 2-3 Big Ten)
Week 11 - vs. Ohio State
The defending national champions have the best roster in the country and should run roughshod on the Big Ten, let alone Illinois. Just get through this one healthy. In three seasons at Ohio State, Urban Meyer is 24-0 during regular-season conference games.
Projection: Ohio State 42, Illinois 17 (Illini 5-5, 2-4 Big Ten)
Week 12 - @ Minnesota
The Illini’s unexpected turnaround last season started with a shocking 28-24 win over a Minnesota team that entered Memorial Stadium with a 6-1 record. But it’d be foolish to think that Jerry Kill’s team will make as many mistakes or that the staff will allow a team that just fired its head coach to come into Minneapolis and stall their gradual rise in the Big Ten West. Minnesota has a secondary full of NFL prospects and prides itself on running the football and stopping the run -- all matchup problems for Illinois.
Projection: Minnesota 27, Illinois 20 (Illini 5-6, 2-5 Big Ten)
Week 13 - vs. Northwestern
Well, here we are again. Another bowl play-in game between the state’s two Big Ten teams. Illinois loses a bit of home-field advantage with this game played at Soldier Field in Chicago, about 10 miles south of Northwestern’s home field. The talent level here is pretty equal but Illinois has more gamebreakers and an experienced quarterback. The Illini keep the Land of Lincoln Trophy and secure another bowl bid to give the next head coach a bit of momentum. Will Bill Cubit be that coach? 7-5 or 8-4 would be much more convincing to whoever is making the hire, but he'd have done a heck of a job to keep this team -- through all the off-the-field trials and tribulations -- focused to earn a 13th game.
Projection: Illinois 31, Northwestern 24 (Illini 6-6, 3-5 Big Ten)