By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Tim Beckman’s coaching career at the University of Illinois has started off with two straight losing seasons. So did Ron Zook’s. Ditto for Ron Turner’s.
But the last Illini football coach to debut with three consecutive sub-.500 campaigns was Gary Moeller back in 1977-’79. And he didn’t survive to see a fourth.
So, will Beckman live to see 2015 in Champaign?
The answer is that he absolutely will if he breaks through this year with a bowl-qualifying team like Zook and Turner both did in their third seasons in Champaign. While I have my doubts that Beckman’s 2014 Illini have what it takes to get the six wins they’ll need to go bowling, there’s no doubt they have a schedule that makes it a possibility.
Last fall, after Illinois escaped West Lafayette with a 20-16 win over hapless Purdue to snap the program’s 20-game Big Ten losing streak and Beckman’s personal 14-game conference skid, Champaign News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate stoked hopes for a brighter future when he noted that beginning with this Saturday’s opener at Memorial Stadium (11 a.m., BTN), the Illini will play in 10 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 (in 2014), but it’s also true that these four are not the Big Ten’s strongest members.”
Perhaps not, but Minnesota and Iowa still finished a formidable 8-5 last season, while Penn State went 7-5. With its shaky coaching and leaky defense, Illinois can hardly afford to pencil in a victory against any of those teams this fall, even if they all do visit Memorial Stadium along with the rebuilding Purdue Boilermakers (who the Illini had certainly better be able to pencil in another win against).
On the flip side, this season’s road slate of Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern is terribly daunting, with the season finale against the Wildcats the only game in which an Illini win wouldn’t be considered a big upset.
Looking at things conservatively this fall, Illinois should beat Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State, although WKU could be dangerous after finishing 8-4 last season under coach Bobby Petrino, who has since departed for Louisville.
And though all four Big Ten home games are winnable, the Illini rarely – if ever – fare as well as at Memorial Stadium as they possibly could. As a result, no one should realistically expect them to sweep the home slate, unless the Wes Lunt-led offense is so incredibly explosive that it makes the Illini defense irrelevant (that won’t be the case, although the offense should be quite potent).
My projection is that Illinois goes 3-1 during the nonconference portion of the schedule (losing at Washington), beats Purdue and pulls off one more conference win at home, while failing to notch a road victory. That would leave Beckman’s Illini with a 5-7 record that’s one win shy of bowl eligibility, but also with one more win than the 4-8 mark of 2013.
So, could Beckman make it to Year 4 at Illinois with a 5-7 mark in Year 3?
Maybe, depending on how competitive the Illini are in their losses. But heading into Saturday’s opener, my expectation is that it should be “bowl or bust” for Beckman in 2014. Because when it comes to reaching the postseason, the third time should be the charm for him – just like it was for Zook and Turner.
If it isn’t, Illinois should try to find its luck elsewhere.