By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) For the Illinois football team, the good news is that its record is 3-1. The bad news is that getting there hasn’t exactly been easy, while the worst news is that the actual easy part of the season is now officially over.
Welcome back to the Big Ten, Tim Beckman.
I’m guessing that the conference has missed you, although I’m also guessing that you may not share similar feelings.
Come Saturday night in Lincoln, Neb., the Illini will kick off their Big Ten slate against the 21st-ranked and undefeated Cornhuskers (4-0), a team that pounded them 39-19 in last season’s conference opener.
With an eventual 1-7 Big Ten record, 2013 didn’t go so well for Beckman’s Illini, just like 2012 (0-8) didn’t either. In fact, dating back to Ron Zook’s final season in 2011, Illinois has one won only once in its past 22 conference games.
Even the Cubs think that’s bad.
Of those losses in that sorry string, the last 15 belong to Beckman, which should be particularly troubling for the coach because it was Big Ten failures that put his predecessor on the chopping block.
At least, that’s what Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said in December 2011 after he made the decision to fire Zook following a 6-6 regular season in which the Illini lost their final six, all of them league games.
“To me, really, you have to have success within your own conference,” Thomas told reporters after dismissing Zook. “The last seven years, we won roughly 32 percent of our Big Ten games.”
After pointing out that Illinois had a winning record against only Indiana over that period, Thomas then added, “It is imperative that our program shows some consistency and competes for championships, and I think a change in coaches can help us get there sooner. I wasn’t here seven years ago when Ron Zook took over as coach, but it’s clear the program is in better shape than what he inherited.”
And therein lies the rub this season for both Thomas and Beckman. So far, Thomas’ hand-picked coach hasn’t made the Illini program look better than the one he inherited, which was coming off back-to-back bowl victories. Rather, Illinois football has looked considerably worse with Beckman than it did with Zook. And it didn’t look good with Zook.
During his final three seasons in Champaign, Zook went 8-16 in the Big Ten, which was far from impressive but still worlds better than the 1-15 mark that Beckman has posted in his first two. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll pull off a 7-1 run this season to tie Zook’s final three-year ledger.
Now, to be fair to Beckman, Zook also started off 1-15 in the Big Ten in his first two seasons after assuming the Illini reigns. But in his third year, he put together a 6-2 conference mark that included an upset of No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus, feats that propelled Illinois to the Rose Bowl.
After shaky wins over Western Kentucky, Youngstown State and Texas State to start the year this season, along with a blowout loss at Washington, it’s difficult to imagine Beckman’s squad staging a similar run.
As a result, the question now sitting in Thomas’ lap is this: Will he hold his own hand-picked coach to the same conference standards that he held Zook? If so, then Beckman had better get his Big Ten act together awfully quick.
To survive to see 2015, I’ve argued that Beckman needs to at least make a bowl game this season. But based on the dwindling attendance figures and at Memorial Stadium and Illinois’ erratic nonconference performances, you have to wonder if he needs a bowl win to save his job.
To even get to the postseason, however, Beckman is going to need to pull off three conference victories. Those wins aren’t likely to come on the road against nationally ranked Nebraska (4-0), Wisconsin (2-1) or Ohio State (2-1) – a trio of schools that, on average, has outscored the by 24 points in five games during the Beckman era.
That leaves five remaining Big Ten games in which Illinois can realistically search for three wins: at home against Purdue (2-2), Minnesota (3-1), Iowa (3-1) and Penn State (4-0), as well as on the road in the season finale at Northwestern (1-2). Bear in mind that Illinois has only three Big Ten wins over 24 games in its past three seasons. Asking the team to win three in five games is a tall order.
But at Illinois, it’s still an order that Beckman should be expected to reach. After all, Mike Thomas himself said as much three years ago.