Less than two months remain until the start of the 2012 season, and to get you prepared, we're taking a very early look at the Week 1 opponents throughout the Big Ten. The Tim Beckman era at Illinois begins against a fairly familiar Big Ten nonconference opponent. Let's take a look at what to expect during Beckman's first game at the helm of the Illini.
Week 1 opponent: Western Michigan
Coach: Bill Cubit (eighth season, 47-39)
2011 record: 7-6 (5-3 MAC; lost to Purdue in Little Caesars Pizza Bowl)
Returning starters: 16 (7 offense, 8 defense, 1 specialist)
About the Broncos: Most Big Ten fans need no introduction to the Broncos, who have played six Big Ten squads since the start of the 2008 season (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Purdue). Western Michigan has gone .500 or better in three of the past four seasons, reaching bowl games both last year and in 2008, when it won nine games. Cubit, a former WMU offensive coordinator, is known for fielding high-powered attacks that put up big yards and big points. Last year's offense ranked eighth nationally in passing (337.3 ypg), 18th in scoring (35.3 ppg) and 19th in total yards (458.5 ypg). Although record-setting wide receiver Jordan White departs, Western Michigan returns record-setting quarterback Alex Carder (3,873 pass yards, 31 TDs in 2011) and its entire running back corps, led by Tevin Drake. MAC Defensive Player of the Year Drew Nowak departs and new defensive coordinator Rich Nagy has some areas to address at both linebacker and in the secondary.
Random factoid: Western Michigan is one of just three teams outside the Big Ten to face multiple Big Ten teams in both 2011 and 2012. The others: Notre Dame and Eastern Michigan. Western Michigan faced three Big Ten squads in 2011 (Michigan, Illinois and Purdue) and visits two this season (Illinois and Minnesota).
Series with Illinois: The Illini lead 3-1, including a 23-20 victory last September in Champaign.
Totally unscientific percentage chance Illinois wins: 58.3 percent. In addition to the two blockbuster games -- Michigan-Alabama and Michigan State-Boise State -- this should be one of the better matchups involving a Big Ten team on opening weekend. Carder and the Broncos' offense provide a very good test for an Illinois defense expected to be the team's strength. Carder passed for 306 yards and two touchdowns in last year's game in Champaign, and though White's departure hurts, Western Michigan has little trouble developing strong pass-catchers. The Illini need their work-in-progress offense to show up, and Western Michigan is lacking on the defensive side. Illinois ran the ball well last year against the Broncos (296 yards) and must do so again. Given the Illini's treacherous road schedule, they really need to win this one and get the Beckman era off to a good start.