Illinois is coming off their best season under head coach Tim Beckman, though they suffered their 3rd straight losing season with a 6-7 finish following a 18-35 loss to Louisiana Tech in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
On the positive side, the Fighting Illini were able to pull off two big upsets to close out the regular season at 6-6 and became bowl eligible, knocking off Penn State 16-14 at home on a last second field goal and going on the road and beating Northwestern 47-33. They also had an impressive win at home over a solid Minnesota team, giving them 3 conference wins for the first time since 2010.
Getting to a bowl game is likely the only reason Beckham was brought back for his 4th season, but the same pressure figures to be on him in 2015. He will have the luxury of getting back 15 starters, which is the most in his tenure.
Big Ten (West)
|9/19||@ North Carolina|
|10/31||@ Penn State|
Estimated Wins: 5.14
*We take the win chance by using the college football win percentage chart for each point spread
Most of the offense last year came from the passing game, which averaged 250 ypg. That number would have likely been even higher had it not been for starting quarterback Wes Lunt missing 5 games with injury. Lunt completed 63.5% of his attempts for 1,763 yards, while throwing an impressive 14 touchdowns to just 3 interceptions. He’s back for his junior season, but will need to stay healthy for the offense to reach it’s full potential.
Lunt was expected to have his top three receivers back from last year, but that won’t be the case, at least not to start the year. Sophomore Mike Dudek, who had a team-high 76 catches, 1,038 yards and 6 touchdowns, tore his ACL in the spring and at best won’t be back till October. The unit should still put up solid numbers with senior Geronimo Allison and sophomore Malik Turner leading the way.
Illinois might want to think about giving the ball more to senior running back Josh Ferguson, who averaged 5.0 yards/carry on his way to 735 yards and 8 touchdowns. Ferguson also played a key part of the passing game, catching 50 passes for 427 yards and 2 scores.
The big question mark surrounding the offense will be the play they get out of their offensive line, which has just 58 career starts coming back. With that said, they do have some talent to work with, including talented sophomore tackle Christian DiLaruro and senior right guard Ted Karras.
The area that must improve if Illinois is going to surprise and get back to a bowl game in 2015, is their defense. The Fighting Illini gave up 34.0 points and 456 yards per game last year. Most of the damage came on the ground, where they gave up 239 ypg and 5.0 yards/carry.
While it won’t be a dominant defensive front by any means, Illinois should have one of their better defensive lines in recent years. They get back starting defensive end Jihad Ward and nose tackle Rob Bain, welcome the return of junior Teko Powell after he had to use a medical red-shit and are excited about the potential of juniors Jarrod Clements and Dawuane Smoot.
Not only should Illinois have one of their better defensive lines, but the linebacker corps looks to be as strong as it’s been in Beckman’s tenure. They get back their leading tackler in Mason Monheim (3rd-Team All-Conference), as well as T.J. Neal and 2013 starter Mike Svetina (medical red-shirt last year).
The secondary will only benefit from the improved play up front and there’s reason to be optimistic about the group of defensive backs they have returning. Illinois gets both starting corners back, as well as strong safety Taylor Barton.
Regular Season Win Total
Big Ten West Odds
Big Ten Championship Odds
National Championship Odds
Odds Courtesy of 5Dimes
*Odds updated live on our college football odds page
While Illinois should be a better all-around than they were in 2014, their record might not show it. Last year’s 6 wins were a bit of a fluke in my opinion. They had to overcome deficits in the 4th quarter in all 3 of their non-conference wins against Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State, while all 5 of their conference losses came by double-digits and two of their wins by 4-points or less. The Fighting Illini weren’t far from being 1-11.
While they have three winnable non-conference games at home against Kent State, Western Illinois and Middle Tennessee, they will likely lose on the road at North Carolina. That means they would need to match last year’s 3 conference wins to get back to a bowl and that seems unlikely. Due to the fact that they are playing Northwestern in Chicago, they have just three true home games in the Big 10 and they come against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
I just think the schedule is too much for them to overcome, as I have Illinois going 4-8 to finish under their win total of 4.5. With that said, I do think this team is stronger and fully expect them to finish with a profitable ATS record, something they have done just once in the last 7 years.
Big Ten (West)
Big Ten Record
Win Total Prediction
I asked some more experts on Illinois football what they thought about the Illini’s upcoming season. Here’s what they had to say.
OVER 3 Wins – Illinois will likely need six wins or more in order to save the job of Coach Tim Beckman. The job security of Athletic Director Mike Thomas hangs in the balance as well. Unfortunately for the Illini, their best player, sophomore wide receiver Mikey Dudek, will miss the majority of the season. Still, there’s enough talent left on the squad to flirt with .500 this year. The Big Ten’s lower division is weak enough, and the Illini non-conference schedule is certainly manageable. Take the over; because there’s no excuse for this team not to reach four or five wins.
OVER 3.5 Wins – The Illini came up with 6 wins a year ago and we see no reason why they won’t get to at least 4 this season. Nobody in the Big Ten returns more starters than the Illini (15) and they bring back their QB Lunt which is key. He transferred to Illinois after starting at Oklahoma State as a true frosh. Lunt threw for 1700 yards and threw 14 TD’s to just 3 picks last year. He’ll work behind a solid offensive line with his top RB and top 4 pass catchers all coming back. The defense was a sore spot for this team a year ago. Only 3 teams (Youngstown St, Minnesota, and Penn St) failed to score at least 30 points on this porous Illini defense. They do have over 71% of their tackles returning from last year and have added a co-defensive coordinator (Mike Phair) with lots of NFL experience so they are hoping for an improvement. The key for us is the early season schedule. We expect home wins over Kent, Western Illinois, and Middle Tennessee State which would almost put them at this total before we hit October. If that happens they need one Big Ten win to put them OVER this number.
OVER 3 Wins – I have Illinois football pegged for 7 wins in 2015. They are coming off a six win season that saw their starting quarterback, Wes Lunt, miss about half the year. The Illini also have, Freshman All-American, Mike Dudek out for the first few weeks. Despite his absence Illinois will still start the season 3-1 due to a cakewalk non-conference schedule.
Illinois will have their best Big Ten season under Head Coach Tim Beckman. I have them 4-4 in conference with wins over Iowa, Purdue, Minnesota, and Northwestern. These 4 conference teams all lost some key contributors from their squads last season.
The 7-5 record could be very accurate. Illinois didn’t lose any main staples from the 2014 team and they are all a year more experienced. The whole season hinges on the health of Lunt. Keep him healthy and Illinois could shock the world.
OVER 4.5 Wins- Illinois will once again be bowl eligible this year. Some injuries may hurt them, but the improvement of the defense will be key. This will help the Illini win some tough road games that they make not have won last year. The offense will lose Dudek and incoming freshman Dre Brown, but this will provide opportunities for Malik Turner and Ke’Shawn Vaughn to step up. As long as Wes Lunt stays healthy this senior lead team will win 7 games and go to another bowl game.
OVER 4.5 Wins – With a non-conference schedule that pits the Illini against four fairly beatable opponents, it sets the team up for their conference schedule needing only one more win to cover the spread. With Wes Lunt spending another year under Bill Cubit and some impressive incoming recruits and junior transfers (keep an eye on Gabe Megginson and Ke’Shawn Vaughn), this Illini squad looks to be on the rise. I predict six wins and another postseason appearance.