Illinois Fighting Illini
Head coach: Tim Beckman
2014 Record: 6-7 overall; 3-5 Big Ten
2014 Bowl: 35-18 Loss to Louisiana Tech at Dallas Bowl
2015 Returning Starters: 3 offense, 5 defense
Odds to win 2016 CFB Championship: +200000
Odds to win 2015 Big Ten Title: +20000
Regular Season Wins: Over 4 (+100); Under 4 (-130)
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The Fighting Illini were hoping to make a much smoother transition at QB last season, and instead struggled with Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt. Lunt battled injuries most of the season and missed five games, but with a better bill of health the Fighting Illini could be a mild surprise this year.
Lunt is in his third season working with offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, and maybe it begins to really pay dividends now. Cubit says Lunt looks better physically and added that he “looks better in the pocket.”
The Illini’s best thing going on offense, though, is Josh Ferguson. He rushed for 735 yards and eight TDs in 2014 and he had 427 yards and two TDs catching, as well. The team should get Mike Dudek back mid-season, and he’s a top receiver when healthy. Geronimo Allison caught 41 passes last year and he’ll be featured more heavily as well. Sophomore Malik Turner will be ready for a bigger role, too.
Defensively, senior end Jihad Ward is part of an improving core. He had three sacks last season and 8.5 tackles for loss. He’s even better this year and tackle Teko Powell will be crucial in anchoring the middle. He missed spring with injury but is expected to be full health this fall, and the linebackers are getting more experience as time passes, which had been a problem.
In the secondary, the defense returns V’Angelo Bentley as well as Eaton Spence. Taylor Barton finished third in tackles and will be back at safety. Overall, the defense can be pretty solid, and is definitely better than last season.
The field goal kicking has to improve for Illinois. David Resiner and Taylor Zalewski split duties last year and neither were that good, going 8 of 17 combined in FGA. The team also needs to replace punter Justin DuVernois who was good for 44 yards per attempt. Ryan Frain and Reisner will battle for the duty. Bentley is the only player in school history to return a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown in the same season.
Beckman is now 12-25 as head coach of Illinois, and 5dimes oddsmakers aren’t predicting much more than four wins for the Fighting Illini. The team has a tough schedule and will face UNC and Iowa on the road before hosting the Conference’s best Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
The Fighting Illini can make it back to a bowl, but are not even in the conversation for the Big Ten title. Getting one win against the Big-three would constitute a success, realistically. Beckman has gone from two wins to four, to nearly passable with six.
Can the team continue to take step forwards and build on that, or does it slightly regress in one of the toughest conferences? Lunt has a lot of arm talent and can be very clutch late in games, so that bodes well for Illinois maybe sneaking out a close one or two. The OL play has been questionable at best for some time and it likely won’t be world’s better in 2015. That has to put a cap on Illinois’ actual potential with the host of swarming defenses in the Big Ten.
Prediction: 5 wins