By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) With an empty resume, the jury is still out for Tim Beckman.
But thanks to the foibles and failures of two of his conference rivals, Illinois’ first-year football coach could have a big “in” for 2012.
And, perhaps, well beyond.
The Fighting Illini, of course, compete in the Big Ten’s woefully misnamed “Leaders” division, which includes the likes of Ohio State and Penn State, neither of which are eligible for this December’s conference championship game due to NCAA sanctions.
Yes, “Leaders,” indeed.
That bad news for the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions fans, however, brings good tidings next month to the training camps at Illinois, Wisconsin and Purdue. I’d include Indiana on that list too, but until further notice, the Hoosiers are, you know, still the Hoosiers – and not championship material.
Last week, Illinois football beat writer Bob Asmussen of the Champaign News-Gazette organized a Big Ten writers’ preseason poll and among the Leaders Division, Wisconsin received 19 votes – the most of any school – to win. Ohio State was picked second (with five first-place votes), followed by Purdue, Illinois, Penn State and Indiana.
Oddly enough, though, with OSU and PSU out of the championship mix, the race for the Leaders Division crown is already essentially down to three teams two months before the Big Ten season even begins. (Sorry, IU.)
Coming off an 11-3 season and a Rose Bowl appearance, the Badgers are indeed the clear-cut team to beat among the Leaders. Not only does Wisconsin return plenty of talent, its schedule is favorable with road games at Nebraska, Purdue, Indiana and Penn State and home games vs. Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan State and Ohio State.
Purdue, meanwhile, faces a gauntlet to start the Big Ten season with games against Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State in the first three weeks, although the Wolverines and Badgers both travel to West Lafayette. The Boilermakers also host Penn State and Indiana, while road-tripping to OSU, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.
Finally, Illinois faces a winnable home schedule this fall with Penn State, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue coming to Champaign. The road, however, is daunting for the Illini with trips to Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State and Northwestern.
With the way the weakened Leaders Division is stacking up for 2012, though, Beckman has an unusually good chance to reach the Big Ten Championship Game in Season 1.
After all, bear in mind that a team does not need to win the Leaders Division this season to go to the Big Ten title game. In fact, someone could finish in third place – if it was behind Ohio State and Penn State – and still go on to earn a berth in Indianapolis.
If Illinois were able to get to Indy – by any means possible – it would be huge for a coach working to steady what’s still a shaky recruiting situation in Champaign.
Additionally, with Penn State’s program preparing for a decade of decimation due to its scholarship losses, the Leaders Division is now lacking a third heavyweight school to stand alongside Wisconsin and Ohio State. That spot is open for Beckman and Illinois to grab it.
If they can.
On Oct. 6, the Illini travel to Madison during the second week of the Big Ten season. If they were able to somehow head back home with a win, a bright football future for Beckman & Co. could be looming on an orange-and-blue horizon.
Both for this season and beyond.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.