CHAMPAIGN — Illinois’ football season opens a week from this Saturday and I’m trying hard to pick a number that I can hang my prediction on.
This is a rough week to be guessing, since coach Tim Beckman has pulled the curtains at Memorial Stadium and has granted us neither a peek nor an interview the entire week. For all we know, Nathan Scheelhaase might be in a full body cast.
When we’re allowed a
30-minute look at the start of practice Monday morning, we’ll be counting limbs and making a quick check to see if there are any notable absentees. Or if Reilly O’Toole has been shifted to defense (not likely).
Despite the media blackout, I scan the schedule and will channel my rosy “glass half-full” attitude to predict that Illinois goes 7-5 this season, which would line up the school’s third consecutive bowl bid.
But there are a number of pivotal games that could go either way, and I’m giving you four to circle now, games that could make or break Beckman’s maiden voyage with the Illini.
Arizona State (Sept. 8, Tempe, Ariz.): The Sun Devils and the Illini had eerily similar seasons in 2011.
Illinois, of course, was the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde, soaring to a 6-0 start and sputtering to a 0-6 finish. Arizona State wasn’t much different, opening 5-1 (the only loss a 17-14 decision at Illinois), then finishing 1-5.
In each case, the dismal finish cost the head coach his job. Ron Zook was replaced by Tim Beckman at Illinois and Dennis Erickson was moved out in favor of former University of Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham.
Illinois should probably win this game. The Sun Devils lost 6-foot-8 quarterback Brock Osweiler, two of their top three receivers and their top three tacklers.
But the game is at home in suburban Phoenix, and it’s a little disorienting to travel out there and find out at 9:30 p.m. (Central), the temperature is still 98 degrees at kickoff. So maybe it’s a coin flip game.
Louisiana Tech (Sept. 22, Memorial Stadium): Have you studied the Associated Press pre-season poll? Or the coaches’ pre-season Top 25? In each case, in the paragraph of teams “also receiving votes,” you’ll find the Bulldogs. You will not find Illinois.
That means that on a neutral field, Louisiana Tech would likely be favored over the Illini.
The Bulldogs went 8-5 last season, winning seven in a row before losing to TCU in a bowl game. Coach Sonny Dykes has quarterback Colby Cameron back but faces a tough early schedule that includes Texas A&M, at Houston, Rice, at Illinois and at Virginia.
This is a very good football team that is used to playing in big stadiums, often as the underdog. Illinois won’t have as much of a home field advantage as you might think.
Penn State (Sept. 29, Memorial Stadium): This is a big game on every level.
For one thing, it’s the Big Ten coaching debut for both Tim Beckman of Illinois and Bill O’Brien of Penn State.
For another – and it will be the story line of the week, for sure – Penn State will make this a saga of their own courageous underdogs against the mean, unsympathetic poachers from Illinois, the scab pickers who raided the Penn State campus in search of disgruntled transfer candidates at a time when the Nittany Lions were at their lowest.
This will be the “Hatred Bowl,” because O’Brien has built an “Us Against the World” chip-on-the-shoulder attitude that will be pointed directly at the Illini.
And, face it, both teams will need this game.
Illinois needs to win because it’s at home, because Penn State will be average at best and because Illinois is almost certain to lose the next two weeks (at Wisconsin and at Michigan).
Penn State needs to win because with the transfers and defections, it’s shaping up as a difficult season that would be made more difficult with a stumble in the Big Ten opener.
Purdue (Nov. 17, Memorial Stadium): I’m picking this game as pivotal because I expect this to be one of the best Purdue teams we’ve seen in a while.
Coach Danny Hope has 19 starters returning, more than any other team in the Big Ten.
“For the first time since I became the head coach, we potentially have a very good football team coming back,” Hope said. “Experience, maturity, a lot of team speed along with experienced and accomplished quarterbacks. Our players are really excited. I can’t wait for the season to get here.”
Illinois fell behind 21-0 and lost at Purdue 21-14 last season. This is the next to the last game of the season and it could be essential to either team’s bowl hopes.