Come with me. Step into the Champaign Room for a moment. Today we have Jim Vainisi, the site manager for SB Nation's The Champaign Room and he has answers to my questions about the 2015 Fighting Illini.
T-Mill: Did Tim Beckman save himself with the bowl game last year? How long does he have now?
Jim: Absolutely. As Illinois entered their stretch run last year, I think a lot of fans had almost resigned to the fact that Beckman was going to be fired; a good number were even rooting for it to happen. After a Week 12 home loss to Iowa, the team needed to win their last two contests against Penn State and Northwestern to become bowl eligible. To summarize, a miracle happened and Beckman still has the job.
As for how long he'll still have this job? That depends. The ongoing player abuse scandal is directly connected to Beckman's job status, but I'm going to stick to on-field performance since I'll be addressing that below.
Record-wise, Beckman needs to win at least six games to remain the head coach--and that may not even be enough if the team loses their bowl game. Athletic Director Mike Thomas is in a tough situation because there are so many fans screaming for new coach. It doesn't matter that the team has improved every year, it only matters that Beckman isn't the perceived ‘long-term solution'.
T-Mill: What exactly is going on with the Illinois athletic department right now?
Jim: Nothing. Everything is fine. Just kidding, please send help.
By now I'm sure you've heard about the player abuse scandal that's impacting several of our teams, most notably the women's basketball program. There's a group of, like, nine or ten former players (no joke, I've actually lost count) that have claimed the coaching staff held segregated practices, forced players to compete with injuries, and a whole lot of other horrid things. Head coach Matt Bollant still has his job, but the program fired associate head coach Mike Divilbiss just hours before the school newspaper broke this story. You can click here for a more complete summary of the situation if you're interested.
The University has employed a third-party law firm to conduct an independent investigation and we're still waiting for them to reveal their findings. Connecting back to the previous question, if it's proven that Beckman and the coaching staff are guilty of even a few of these allegations then it's entirely possible that they don't make it through the season. That probably won't happen, though, because this particular case appears to just be a small group of disgruntled former players who weren't able to secure professional contracts.
T-Mill: Is the Illinois offense now Wes Lunt or bust, or does someone else come forward?
Jim: I wouldn't necessarily say that, but the junior quarterback will be pretty damn important for Illinois. Lunt is a fantastic talent and can make all the throws--that really isn't up for debate. However, he's going to need some need help from his teammates in order to be successful this year. Sophomore wide receiver Mike Dudek will be out for an extended period of time with a torn ACL and that really hurts because he was the team's best option in the passing game. Someone else is going to have to step up.
He'll also need something that resembles adequate pass protection. The offensive line was putrid last year and, if you recall, Lunt suffered a broken leg against Purdue and it essentially ended his season. The line added some depth this offseason, but it's still one of the team's worst position groups.
T-Mill: Is the defense any closer at all to stopping the run?
Jim: The defense looks a bit better this year on paper, but I won't believe it until I actually see some better on-field results. They've been absolutely abysmal the past few seasons and their pursuit angles have been atrocious--especially when you consider how much practice they've had chasing down ball carriers from behind. I was shocked when Beckman announced that he'd be retaining Tim Banks as his defensive coordinator, but the hiring of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant Mike Phair as the new co-defensive coordinator was a good move.
Will that hire translate to better play from the defensive line? Man, I sure hope so. That group returns three starters, most notably defensive end Jihad Ward, so there there's at least hope for more consistent performances. If/when ball carriers break through the first level, linebacker Mason Monheim is one of the best tacklers in the conference and he'll do his best to keep Illinois' secondary out of the play.
T-Mill: As the only Big Ten team to lose to Purdue in two years, is there much pressure on Illinois to win this game?
Jim: There's going to be a lot pressure on the Illini, but I don't think it'll be because they lost to Purdue last year--although that certainly doesn't help. When you take a look at Illinois' schedule, you'll notice their three conference home games are against Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Ohio State. I don't think we'll be winning any of those! So assuming they go 3-1 during non-conference, the Illini will need to take three of five on the road from Iowa, Penn State, Purdue, Minnesota, and Northwestern (neutral site) to become bowl eligible. It's probably safe to say that West Lafayette will be one of the three easiest trips on that list so it'll be a critical game.
T-Mill: Finally, a prediction?
Jim: Week 10 is so far away and anything can happen between now and kickoff. With that said, this contest really looks like it could be a toss-up. Illinois should be slightly better than last season and I think the same can be said about Purdue. I'd feel a lot more confident if this game was being played in Champaign because the Illini are 2-12 on the road during the Beckman era (one of those two victories came in West Lafayette during the 2013 season).
But I'm still slightly optimistic. According to the preliminary announcement by the coaching staff, there's a chance that Mikey Dudek could back in time to face the Boilermakers. If that happens and Wes Lunt can somehow stay relatively healthy, Illinois will be fielding a far more dynamic offense than what you saw last season. So I guess my way too early prediction is:
Illinois 28, Purdue 24