By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) On the campus of the University of Illinois, the Bielfeldt Athletic Administration Building sits between Florida Avenue and St. Mary’s Road.
But when it comes to the Fighting Illini football program, it might as well be stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Or maybe that’s just athletic director Mike Thomas’ office.
With Illinois’ narrow 20-16 victory over a hapless Purdue team on Saturday, Tim Beckman successfully snapped both the program’s 20-game Big Ten losing streak and his own personal 14-game conference drought. Undoubtedly, it was good to finally see the Illini’s ignominious streak go up in smoke, but I can’t say that the win over the 1-10 Boilermakers got me any more fired up about Beckman and his tenure.
Although it’s almost certainly kept him from being fired.
For better or worse, with Thomas having money and his reputation invested in him, Tim Beckman – having now doubled last season’s two-win total and finally secured that elusive Big Ten victory – is expected to be back for a third season in 2014.
But what exactly does that mean for next year’s expectations for the Illini, and the program at large beyond that?
On Monday, Champaign News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate noted that beginning with the season finale against Northwestern on Saturday, “the Illini will play 11 consecutive home games in which they should be competitive or favored.”
“The 2014 home slate,” wrote Tate, “offers Youngstown State, Western Kentucky, Texas State, Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa and Penn State, and the 2015 campaign begins with Kent State, Western Illinois and Middle Tennessee. This is not to suggest that Illinois will sweep the four conference foes, but it’s also true that these four are not the Big Ten’s strongest members.”
Perhaps not, but Minnesota is still 8-3 this season, while Iowa is 7-4 and Penn State is 6-5. I wish I could I shared Tate’s optimism, but I hardly think that Illinois can simply pencil in a victory for any of those four home games in 2014. Unless the defense is vastly improved, they’ll be fortunate to win two. And on the flip side, next season’s road schedule of Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern appears terribly daunting.
Looking at things realistically, Illinois should beat Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State, although Bobby Petrino’s Hilltoppers – currently 7-4 this season – will be no pushover in Week 2.
All four Big Ten home games may then theoretically be “winnable,” but the Illini rarely – if ever – fare as well as at Memorial Stadium as they possibly could. No one should expect them to sweep the home slate. And of the road games, only Northwestern appears winnable at face value.
My gut says tells me that Illinois wins four or five games in 2014 – pretty much the same as this season – with an outside chance at six if they can get through the nonconference schedule unscathed.
I would hope that based on all of Beckman’s struggles between the sidelines, along them and outside them, the coach would be under a “Bowl Game or Bust” edict from Thomas next season – especially with celebrated quarterback transfer Wes Lunt becoming eligible (although the QB position has hardly been the problem in 2013). While we’ll see where next season leads for Beckman, I can’t imagine that it will tell us much more about the coach that we don’t already know.
From any reasonable view, Tim Beckman hasn’t looked like a man who’s terribly well-suited to lead a Big Ten program, and he looks even less like someone who can lift the Illini to elite heights. With that in mind, the day is still likely to come at some point where Thomas is going to need to honestly look at his football program and coach and decide if he wants a subpar-to-average outfit or desires one that’s capable of accomplishing more.
I’m quite sure that I know what the Illini fan base desires.
And here’s to hoping that some day they get it.