Nonconference primer: Illinois

It's July, which means there will be football next month. (Pause for cheering). To get you geared up, we're taking a closer look at the list of nonconference opponents on each Big Ten team's slate this fall.

Here's what will be facing Illinois in the nonconference sked:

Southern Illinois, Aug. 31

Coach: Dale Lennon (35-23, sixth season)

2012 record: 6-5, 5-3 Missouri Valley (FCS)

Offensive headliner: Tight end MyCole Pruitt led the team in receiving last year with 49 catches for 577 yards and four touchdowns and could be an FCS all-American.

Defensive headliner: Linebacker Bryan Presume had a team-best 78 tackles and returned a fumble 100 yards for a score in 2012. His was one of six defensive touchdowns the Salukis managed last season.

The skinny: Southern Illinois was very good -- and quite opportunistic -- on defense last year but had a hard time taking advantage because of a shaky offensive line. The Salukis averaged just 3.2 yards per carry and allowed 35 sacks in 11 games. Lennon changed offensive line coaches in hopes of fixing that, but he has only four defensive starters returning.

Cincinnati, Sept. 7

Coach: Tommy Tuberville (0-0, first year; 130–77 overall in FBS)

2012 record: 10-3, 5-2 Big East

Offensive headliner: Quarterback Brendon Kay still has to secure the starting job after replacing Munchie Legaux down the stretch in 2012, but he passed for 1,298 yards with 10 touchdowns and only two interceptions, completing 63 percent of his attempts. Kay also sparkled in the spring game with three touchdown passes.

Defensive headliner: Senior linebacker Greg Blair earned All-Big East honors in 2012 after leading Cincinnati in both total tackles (138) and tackles for loss (9). Blair added two interceptions, two forced fumbles, six pass breakups, 2.5 sacks and four quarterback hurries.

The skinny: Cincinnati is in a historic stretch of 10 or more wins in five of the past six seasons, including each of the past two. But like Purdue, the Bearcats are going through a coaching transition as Tuberville takes command. The quarterback competition is an intriguing story to watch, but Cincinnati brings back enough firepower on both sides of the ball to have another good year.

Washington, Sept. 14 (at Soldier Field in Chicago)

Coach: Steve Sarkisian (26-25, fifth year)

2012 record: 7-6, 5-4 Pac-12

Offensive headliner: Running back Bishop Sankey had a breakout year in rushing for 1,439 yards and 16 touchdowns and averaging five yards per carry. The Huskies also need quarterback Keith Price to play more like he did in his standout 2011 than in his so-so 2012, when he had 19 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions.

Defensive headliner: Defensive end Josh Shirley had 6.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss last year while forcing six fumbles, which tied for the most in the Pac-12.

The skinny: Sarkisian has yet to put too much bark back in these Huskies, who have gone exactly 7-6 in each of the past three years after a 5-7 mark in his first season at the helm. Defense, or lack thereof, has been Washington's biggest problem in the high scoring Pac-12, though it made some progress last year. Sarkisian has 16 starters back, including nine on offense, so this may be the year to make a move.

Miami (Ohio), Sept. 28

Coach: Don Treadwell (8-16, third year)

2012 record: 4-8, 3-5 MAC

Offensive headliner: The RedHawks must replace quarterback Zac Dysert, who finished his career with the 20th-most passing yards in FBS history. Senior Austin Boucher, who started four games in 2010, will take over.

Defensive headliner: Outside linebacker Chris Wade is an All-MAC candidate after registering a team-high 128 stops last year.

The skinny: The RedHawks haven't had much success since Mike Haywood made his ill-fated and short-lived move to Pitt three years ago. Their offensive line has been terrible and gave up 37 sacks last year. Now Treadwell, the former Michigan State offensive coordinator, must find a way to replace the ultra-productive and get the team to break out of its four-win rut.


The good news for the Illini is twofold: they will not have to leave the state of Illinois during nonconference play, and they should be solid favorites in their first and fourth non-league contests. Whether the team is going to improve much in the second year under Tim Beckman depends largely on those games against Cincinnati and Washington, neither of which look incredibly intimidating as the Bearcats have a new coach and the Huskies have been mediocre for a long time. Yet Cincinnati and Washington each have more experienced talent than Illinois. In an ideal scenario, the Illini would win their first two games and build a little bit of excitement for that Soldier Field game against Washington, which figures to give Beckman's defense some problems with a senior quarterback in Price. Illinois went 2-2 in the nonconference schedule last year and didn't win another game; a 2-2 record here is the baseline of expectations, and 3-1 would have to be considered a sign of progress.

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