Illinois Fighting Illini football preview 2013: Best case, worst case, prediction

Photo: Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

Photo: Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

We are about a week away from the kickoff of the 2013 college football season so it is time to dust off the good ole’ Big Ten Best Case/Worst Case/Prediction column. This is where the schedule is broken down and we take a look at how the most extreme cases as well as the most likely can happen. The best part of these is when I examine where I went wrong at the end of the season.

Without further ado, let’s preview the first team alphabetically in the league — Illinois. The Fighting Illini struggled through a winless Big Ten year with a first year coach. Anxious fans have already put Tim Beckman on the hot seat.

Prior to the 2012 season, Illinois hired a coach who had had his former Toledo teams humming on offense. The new system didn’t have the personnel – or the talent, frankly – to make it happen and they finished a lackluster No. 122-nationally in points a year ago. Adding to the woes, that “D” finished 95th in the land with 32 points given up each Saturday.

The good news is that there are some playmakers returning on both sides of the ball. Both Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O’Toole are back at quarterback and the program’s defensive quarterback, Mason Monheim, is back after a fabulous freshman season at middle linebacker. Running back Donovonn Young had flashes and wideout Ryan Lankford is as good as anybody when he is on. If he can overcome his consistency issues, that weak offense should tick up.

2013 Schedule:

Week 1 vs. Southern Illinois: 6-5 (5-3) Missouri Valley – FCS (2012 record used for all opponents)

Best Case: Illinois beat down Western Michigan last year and humiliated their lone FCS foe from 2012. No reason to expect any less here. 1-0

Worst Case: SIU did beat power program Northern Iowa and put a scare into eventual FCS national champion South Dakota State. Perhaps this one’s a touch too close for comfort but Illinois still notches a W. 1-0

Prediction: Young hits the 100-yard mark early in the third and the starters are pulled by the fourth. W: 42-10, 1-0

Cincinnati: 10-3 (5-2) Big East

Best Case: Cincy is at about the same level, talent-wise, as … Northwestern? Louisiana Tech? Arizona State? Better? Well NU, LT and ASU all put up 45 or more on Illinois last year. Even with improvement, the talented Bearcats should win. 1-1

Worst Case: Northwestern beat the Illini 50-14 last season. If things are still bad in Champaign, things can get real ugly. 1-1

Prediction: I like this Cincy team. I think they can push Louisville (the Cards did need overtime last year to put them down) and contend for the American Athletic crown. The fact that the program has been snubbed by the Big Ten and ACC for entry when they were trying to flee the sinking USS Big East should also put a charge in them. L: 31-14, 1-1

Washington: 7-6 (5-4) Pac 12

Best Case: Steve Sarkisian does Steve Sarkisian things. Hey, they did lose to Washington State a season ago. Who knows, maybe everything breaks Illinois way in this one. 2-1

Worst Case: Against an awful Colorado team, UW won 38-3. Sadly Illinois has been looking pretty Colorado-ish the last few years. 1-2

Prediction: The Huskies return Keith Price, Bishop Sankey (who just missed out on 1,500 rushing yards in 2012) as well as a pair of talented wideouts that caught a combined 146 passes for over 1600 yards and 13 TDs. This one could get ugly if Illinois’ defense has not made the leap. L: 35-14, 1-2

Miami (OH): 4-8 (3-5) MAC

Best Case: Miami trotted out one of the worst rushing teams a year ago and one of the nation’s worst defensive units. The rebuild in Oxford should still be full swing. 3-1

Worst Case: Really hard to see Illinois dropping this game. Worst case would be an injury to a key performer. 2-2

Prediction: Miami’s lack of rushing makes them one dimensional and Illinois’ superior athleticism shuts them down all day. W: 28-10, 2-2

At Nebraska: 10-4 (7-1) Big Ten

Best Case: Yikes what a way to kick off league play. First road game of the year. Very tall order no matter how improved the Orange Crush may be. 3-2

Worst Case: Illinois’ closest road game a year ago was losing 31-14 to Wisconsin. This could get out of hand early. 2-3

Prediction: Ameer Abdullah scares me as much, if not more, than T-Magic. Even with two key linebackers and several important defensive linemen back, I’m not sure Illinois is strong enough in the box to shut this ground game down for four quarters. L: 38-7, 2-3 (0-1)

Wisconsin: 8-6 (4-4) Big Ten

Best Case: UW has a new coach and uncertainty under center. That’s not a great recipe to start with on paper. 4-2

Worst Case: Other than the coaching and QB this is a very experienced club that had a top 20 defense last season and even without Montee Ball still have a scary group of talented running backs. 2-4

Prediction: Even with the quarterback drama all offseason, you would think it would be resolved by the midway point of the campaign. With that in mind, Bucky is more talented and has better depth everywhere else. L: 31-3, 2-4 (0-2)

Michigan State: 7-6 (3-5) Big Ten

Best Case: MSU was a mess last year with the ball en route to a No. 110 ranking in scoring. They were not immune to the upset either, dropping a home game to Iowa. 5-2

Worst Case: Without the ball was another story. Top ten “D” for coach Mike Dantonio, who has proven to be one of the best defensive schemers in the league. 2-5

Prediction: Gholston and Bell are big shoes to fill, but Andrew Maxwell has now had a full season of play and two off-seasons to grow into a reliable quarterback and as good as Gholston was as a disruptive defensive line force, Max Bullough is a man amongst boys at linebacker. L: 24-10, 2-5 (0-3)

At Penn State: 8-4 (6-2) Big Ten

Best Case: In an improved season, Illinois gets the annoying “moral victory” in a tight loss at Happy Valley. 5-3

Worst Case: Penn State had no problems in this one a year ago winning 35-7. 2-6

Prediction: Possessing the league’s best wideout (Allen Robinson), a solid running game, top 20 defense, trotting out the defending Coach of the Year and at home … yeah, I like Penn State’s chances in this one. L: 35-14, 2-6 (0-4)

At Indiana: 4-8 (2-6) Big Ten

Best Case: Kevin Wilson has made a lot of money earning a reputation as an offensive guru. His Hoosiers barely cracked the top 50 last year in scoring and had the 104th ranked scoring defense. Believe it or not, bowl bound. 6-3

Worst Case: Indiana won this game last season by two touchdowns and is expected to be even better in 2013. The curve is much higher for the Hoosiers. Beckman seeing Year 3 in Illini Country is looking mighty tough. 2-7

Prediction: This game feels a little like a toss-up this far out, but it is not a neutral site game and I think Indiana will improve on that 30.8 points per. Finally, IU is a sexy pick to make a bowl as a sleeper and well, Illinois isn’t. L: 35-21, 2-7 (0-5)

Ohio State: 12-0 (8-0) Big Ten

Best Case: At least they are bowl eligible … and have a history of sticking close against the Buckeyes. 6-4

Worst Case: A repeat of last year’s 52-22 debacle. 2-8

Prediction: Even if OSU fails to live up the hype and loses two to four games, this won’t be one of those losses. L: 49-28, 2-8 (0-6)

At Purdue: 6-7 (3-5) Big Ten

Best Case: Illinois dropped this by a field goal last season. Purdue isn’t that great a team. 7-4

Worst Case: The Boilermakers return some – not a lot – but some talent. They are the home team. If Illinois is in a tailspin and/or Beckman has already been canned, I can see the train rolling. 2-9

Prediction: Hmm, MAC coach with a good reputation takes a Big Ten job from a 6-6 team. This is exactly what Illinois did going from Ron Zook to Beckman and now Purdue is doing the same from Danny Hope to Darrell Hazell. I don’t foresee a seamless transition and while Hazell could be great at PU down the line, I expect a bumpy debut. W: 28-21, 3-8 (1-6)

Northwestern: 10-3 (5-3) Big Ten

Best Case: Last week of the season, Northwestern limps in following an injury-plagued campaign with a 6-5 mark and now does not have much to play for. There are ways to talk yourself into another upset and a dream season of eight wins. Crazier things have happened. 8-4

Worst Case: Beckman has long since been canned and his interim replacement completes an 0-16 Big Ten mark in the regime’s history. 2-10

Prediction: If Northwestern is anywhere near the preseason expectations the national media has placed on them, the ‘Cats could be playing for a lot in the final week. A New Year’s Bowl, a Big Ten Title berth, hell maybe even a 12-0 season – who knows. The bottom line is this game should mean a lot more to the Wildcats than Illinois. L 42-21, 3-9 (1-7)

Final thoughts:

Illinois suffers from a lack of depth all over the place and a general lack of talent heading into 2013. The question is that if Illinois has a three- or four-win campaign with just a win (or two) in the league, is that enough to bring Beckman back. I’ve been a strong supporter of the three year rule but in today’s age it can be harder to justify. This team needs to show a lot of improvement, even if it isn’t reflected in the record, to retain him. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and Kevin Wilson each showed enough improvements in their respective second years without making a bowl to see a third year. For Ferentz that yielded a bowl win followed by a co-championship in Year 4. For Wilson, the expectations are there for a bowl. I think we’ll see Beckman next year unless our absolute Worst Case scenario becomes reality.