Last year didn’t end well for Illinois fans. The Illini lost their final six games of the regular season, their top player on both offense and defense and their head coach. That recent track record and the roster losses would make any bettor skeptical, but Illinois may actually have some value at the betting window this season.
Two NFL first-round picks left the Illini during the offseason. The team leader in receptions (90) and yards (1,276), AJ Jenkins, took his skills to San Francisco, and national sack leader (16) Whitney Mercilus joined the stout Texans defense.
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New Head Coach Tim Beckman handed out orange bracelets with 12-1-12 printed on them to attempt to unify the team for one goal this season: The Big Ten Championship Game.
Most seasons, a team with a new coach, coordinators and the task of replacing its top two players would create a situation where there would be a slim chance to attain that goal. This season, however, both Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for the championship and Illinois has a chance to squeeze into the game.
Former Head Coach Ron Zook lost his job after six seasons with minimal success on the field. Zook’s recruiting of top athletes will be something Beckman will be challenged to equal for sustained success in the future.
Beckman has hired new coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales on offense and Tim Banks on defense. Many head coaches bring along coordinators from previous jobs, but this is the first season all of these men will work together and try to congeal their ideals to reach the one goal of success.
The hardest part of this transition will be for the veteran players to adjust to yet another system. This will be the third system on offense in the last four years. Beckman, a defensive coach by trade, will need to put a lot of faith in his new co-offensive coordinators to ease the transition to their new system.
Junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has returned, but he lost his most impressive weapon in Jenkins. Next to the 90 catches from Jenkins, then next highest catch total was only 26 from then-sophomore Spencer Harris. Harris returns along with Darius Millines to try and replace Jenkins production.
The running game at Illinois took a big step backward last season after Mikel Leshoure left for the NFL. In limited action last season, new starter Donovonn Young averaged more than five yards per carry, and Beckman hopes that he will follow Leshoure and Rashard Mendenhall as the next great Illinois running back.
The offensive line also struggled last year, as the group allowed 36 sacks on the season (109th nationally). Three starters return this season and they also gained former Penn State recruit Ryan Nowicki to compete for a role.
Any team that loses the top sack artist in the nation has a tough gap to fill, but Illinois returns three other starters on the defensive line and tackle leader Jonathan Brown. This type of talent could allow Illinois to actually improve in overall defense despite the loss of Mercilus.
The secondary returns three starters and is filled with upper classmen, including interception leader Terry Hawthorne. The secondary finished first in the Big Ten in pass defense and third in the nation. The Illinois defense is stacked on all three fronts.
New coordinator Banks has a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball and will need to quickly teach them his new scheme to take advantage of these returning starters. Seven defensive starters are seniors and a few of the juniors may have NFL aspirations after the season.
2012 Illinois Fighting Illini Futures Odds
Illinois is listed as 20/1 to win the Big Ten at Bovada and +550 to win the Leaders Division.
2012 Illinois Fighting Illini Football Schedule Analysis
Illinois should have a relatively easy schedule for their first five weeks as they transition to Beckman’s new style. Arizona State would traditionally be a tough game, but with the Sun Devils losing Brock Osweiller to the NFL, the Illinois defense should be able to attack enough to get the road victory.
The first real test is going to be Oct. 6 in Madison against the Badgers. Wisconsin will also be just beginning their Big Ten schedule at that time and trying to adjust without Russell Wilson running the offense. The Illinois defense against the massive Wisconsin offensive line will be a tremendous battle to watch, and Illinois should be a good bet against the spread to keep the game close.
Finishing the season with a three-game stretch of Minnesota, Purdue and Northwestern should help Illinois avoid a losing streak like last season and offset any struggles that may occur on the road against Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State.
2012 Illinois Fighting Illini Football Predictions
A new coaching staff means transition, but with a returning quarterback and Top-10 defense, Illinois automatically is thrown into the division battle with Penn State and Ohio State ineligible.
Scheelhaase has a familiarity with two returning receivers, and the offensive line should improve from the 36 sacks allowed last season. The defense is the strength of this team, though, and the lack of top competition in the division will keep Illinois in the race all season long. This team will very likely make a bowl game.
If the Fighting Illini are able to defeat Wisconsin, the division is theirs for the taking. Because of the strength of the defense, they would have a chance to defeat any team in the Big Ten Championship Game. Illinois is a nice sleeper pick at these odds to take the division and the conference.
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