2011 Record: (7-6, 2-6 in Big Ten)
Head Coach: Tim Beckman (first year at Illinois, 21-16 All-Time)
Last Bowl Game: 2011 Fight Hunger Bowl: beat UCLA 20-14
Stats to Cheer: allowed opponents to convert on just 34.59% of third downs (2nd in Big Ten, 22nd in Nation); had 41 sacks (2nd in Big Ten, 6th in Nation)
Stat to Fear: 28 turnovers in 2011 (11th in Big Ten, 104th in Nation)
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: (Offense: 7; Defense: 7; Specialists: 1)
Key Defensive Returnees: LB Jonathan Brown (108 tackles, 6 sacks), DE Michael Buchanan (64 tackles, 7.5 sacks), DT Akeem Spence 69 tackles), CB Terry Hawthorne (60 tackles. 3 INT)
Key Offensive Returnees: QB Nathan Scheelhaase (13 TD, 10 INT, 624 yds rush), RB Donovonn Young (451 yds rushing, 6 TD), C Graham Pocic
Last year Illinois stormed out to a 6-0 record against some lesser competition. Then the bottom dropped out as they lost their last six games of the regular season. The result was that Ron Zook was finally off the hot seat and the Illini tabbed Toledo's Tim Beckman as their new head coach. Beckman is no stranger to the Big Ten as he worked under Jim Tressel at Ohio State before moving on to Oklahoma State to become defensive coordinator.
Beckman is a defensive guy so he's brought in Chris Beatty (WVU, Vandy) and Billy Gonzales (Florida/LSU) to be co-coordinators of the offense. The Illini return talented QB Nathan Scheelhaase but he needs to take the next step for Illinois to be successful this season. In the last seven games of 2011, Scheelhaase threw just three TD passes. Scheelhaase uses his feet as weapons as he led the Illini in rushing last season but they need a true RB to step up and provide some punch for them. The most likely suspect is rising sophomore Donovonn Young (451 yards and 5.18 ypc as a frosh). The Illini have some talent and it will be interesting to see what Beckman does with them in year one.
Illinois flat out got after the QB last year. As a team they had 41 sacks but Whitney Mercilus has taken his 16 to the NFL. They still have Michael Buchanan (7.5) and Jonathan Brown (6) so the Illini should still get some pressure on the QB. The Illini lose a couple of key cogs but I expect the defense to only take a slight step back this year. Last year, the Illini held it's opponents under to twenty-one points or under nine times. That gives the offense a great chance to win and if they can do the same this year then Illini will surprise some folks.
The schedule is very workable and the Illini have a shot to get off to another fast start. The big test comes in the middle of the season when they have four of five games against the like of Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State. Look for Illini to beat some teams they aren't supposed to this season but I also think they might lose a couple they are supposed to win.
2012 Prediction: 7-5
Previous 2012 Previews:
Big 12: Kansas