By Dave Wischnowsky –

(CBS) For recent Illinois football coaches, the third time has been the charm.

In 1999, after he posted a 2-14 Big Ten record during his first two seasons, Ron Turner broke through in Year 3 by reaching the MicronPC.com Bowl. In 2007, after he posted a 1-15 conference record during his first two seasons, Ron Zook broke through in Year 3 by reaching the Rose Bowl. And now in 2014, after posting a 1-15 Big Ten record during his first two seasons, Tim Beckman has his own opportunity to break through in Year 3 by reaching a bowl game.

But if Beckman does achieve six wins and qualifies for the postseason with a victory at Northwestern on Saturday, will it qualify as a breakthrough?

Or will it instead be considered a breakdown?

That’s what Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas must weigh this week as he wades into a tricky situation regarding his handpicked football coach that’s completely of his own making.

If Beckman loses on Saturday in Evanston, the decision about his future should be a pretty easy one for Thomas. After all, firing a coach with a 3-21 Big Ten record in three seasons who has clearly lost the support and interest of his program’s fan base is a logical call.

However, if Beckman goes out and wins against the Wildcats, then his future gets considerably more complicated, along with Thomas’ job.

It’s difficult, after all, to dismiss a coach headed to a bowl game. Although, three years ago, Thomas did just that when he ousted Ron Zook following a 6-6 regular season that had his team bound for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

At the time in December 2011, Thomas explained Zook’s firing by telling reporters, “To me, really, you have to have success within your own conference. The last seven years, we won roughly 32 percent of our Big Ten games.”

Even with a win on Saturday, Beckman will have won only 16.7 percent of his own Big Ten games.

Three years ago, Thomas also went on to point out that Illinois had a winning record against only Indiana during Zook’s tenure and added that, “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.”

Beckman doesn’t have a winning record against any Big Ten programs, and it’s impossible to argue that the program is in better shape than when he inherited it. At best, with a win on Saturday, the program will be back on equal footing from where it was when Beckman took over.

But even that’s questionable. Zook’s final Illini team finished 2-6 in the Big Ten and ended the regular season on a six-game skid, but the margin of defeat in those six games was just 11.3 points. The worst defeat was by 20 to Minnesota, while three of the losses were within 10 points or fewer. Overall, his team was competitive in conference but couldn’t get the job done.

So far this season, Beckman’s Illini have lost their six games (five in conference, one at Washington) by an average margin of 22.3 points. Only one defeat has been as close as 10 points (Wisconsin), while three have been by 25 points or more, including a 41-point defeat at Ohio State. During its losses, Illinois hasn’t been competitive at all.

Beyond that, attendance has continued to dwindle in Champaign as fans have seemingly given up on Beckman and his program. This past Saturday when Illinois pulled off a late-game win against Penn State in its home finale, it’s estimated that perhaps fewer than 10,000 people were in the stands at 60,000-seat Memorial Stadium to see David Reisner’s winning field goal split the uprights.

Immediate help also doesn’t appear to be on the way for the Illini via the recruiting front. Currently, Illinois – which has struggled mightily on defense during Beckman’s tenure – counts only three defensive players among its 15 commitments from the Class of 2015.

All of those elements add up to a major decision for Thomas, win or lose this weekend. But the decision gets particularly tricky if the Illini are to win.

Three years ago, a 6-6 record, an awful Big Ten mark, subpar recruiting and a disenchanted fan base was considered a failure.

Three years later, can Thomas consider the same a success?

Dave Wischnowsky is columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his columns here.