When media days arrive you know that college football season is almost upon us. To get us through the last few days before the good stuff arrives, we're setting a bar for each team in the conference and weighing in on why they may or may not reach it during the 2015 season.
Up next is Illinois, which finally gained some positive momentum under Tim Beckman last year by finishing the regular season 6-6 and reaching a bowl game. Unfortunately, some of that momentum quickly stalled with the loss to Louisiana Tech in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, the ACL injury to Mikey Dudek in the spring and the allegations of player abuse against Beckman from a former offensive lineman. Given all of that, a return to a second straight bowl game is a reasonable goal this year for the Illini. Will it happen?
Why Illinois will make a bowl game in 2015
Veterans in key spots: The Illini aren't teeming with talent, but at least Beckman has some reliable veterans at key positions on the team. Quarterback Wes Lunt should be better in his second year in Bill Cubit's system and really just needs to stay healthy to put up big numbers. He has one of the most versatile and productive tailbacks to utilize in senior Josh Ferguson. Dudek's injury hurts but he could be back in October, and receivers Geronimo Allison and Malik Turner could help pick up the slack until then. On defense, senior end Jihad Ward and linebacker Mason Monheim should provide good leadership, and Ward has superstar potential. The lines might be in as good a shape as they've been in Beckman's tenure. Depth is still an issue, but the starting unit here certainly rates as bowl-caliber.
Reasonable schedule: Last year's trip to Washington was a fruitless adventure. The nonconference schedule is very manageable in 2015, with Kent State, Western Illinois and Middle Tennessee almost assuredly serving up half the wins necessary for bowl eligibility by coming to Champaign. The lone out-of-league road contest is at North Carolina, which has issues of its own. Illinois didn't draw any gimmes in the crossover portion of Big Ten play; it has to go to Penn State and will host Ohio State. But the Illini beat Penn State and Minnesota at home last year; they're more than capable of notching a couple of Big Ten scalps and at the very least should match up favorably with Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue.
Why Illinois won't make a bowl game in 2015
Defensive lapses: In some ways, it's remarkable that Illinois even made a bowl game last year given its horrendous performance on defense. Tim Banks' unit surrendered 34 points per game and a Big Ten-worst 239 yards per game on the ground, which ranked 119th out of 125 FBS teams. Beckman made a staff change, adding NFL assistant Mike Phair as defensive line coach and co-defensive coordinator with Banks. There's some depth on the defensive line and Mike Svetina returns at linebacker after missing last season with an injury. But there hasn't been an influx of new talent or, from what we can tell, much of a scheme change. So can we really expect drastically better results? And can a team that can't stop the running game be counted on from week to week in the run-heavy Big Ten?
Off-the-field issues: The university still hasn't wrapped up its internal investigation into abuse allegations raised by former Illini offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic on Twitter this offseason. It may end up that the school finds no wrongdoing on Beckman's part and the story simply fades away. The fact that former players such as Nathan Scheelhaase have decided to work for Beckman and others rallied to his cause is a good sign. But there's no guarantee that more negative news won't come out, or that it won't create a giant distraction if not a rift in the locker room. Northwestern tried to pretend everything was OK after the labor union movement bubbled to the surface before last year, but head coach Pat Fitzgerald later admitted it was a major hindrance to the season. Despite last year's bowl appearance, Beckman does not have a lot of job security, and a slow start or more off-field issues could lead to a season that goes sideways.