The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
Today at No. 49: Illinois
Coach: Tim Beckman (0-0, first season; 21-16 overall)
2011 record: 7-6 (2-6 in Big Ten Conference, fifth in Leaders Division)
Look back: Illinois has been an enigma in college football the past few seasons. Loaded with plenty of talent, the Illini has always seemed to come up short on potential. Yes, the program is coming off back-to-back bowl wins but after opening the season with six straight wins, optimism was high in Urbana-Champaign. That quickly faded with six straight losses. Even a win over UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl couldn’t satisfy the critics and Ron Zook was fired after seven seasons, replaced with Toledo coach Tim Beckman.
Offensive starters lost/returning: 5/7
Defensive starters lost/returning: 3/8
Key losses: RB Jason Ford, WR A.J. Jenkins, DE Whitney Mercilus, LB Ian Thomas, CB Tavon Wilson
Top returnees: QB Nathan Scheelhaase, WR Spencer Harris, LB Jonathan Brown, CB Terry Hawthorne
Strengths: Beckman’s up-tempo coaching philosophy made Toledo one of the most explosive teams in college football over the past few seasons. He will bring that style of play with him to Illinois which should help revive an offense last season that was anemic at times (91st overall in the nation in scoring). Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will be called upon to run Beckman’s spread offense. Scheelhaase combined for more than 2,700 yards of total offense and 19 total touchdowns. … On the flip side, Illinois’ defense was outstanding – ranked seventh nationally in total yard allowed – and returns seven starters. Replacing Whitney Mercilus, who led the team with 16.0 sacks, will be key and new defensive coordinator Tim Banks has several viable options such as defensive end Michael Buchanan. The secondary is loaded with experience led by cornerback Terry Hawthorne.
Weaknesses: Scheelhaase led the team in rushing but was helped out in the backfield by Jason Ford (600 yards, seven touchdowns). Ford’s departure leaves sophomore Donovonn Young as the most likely to step into a bigger role in 2012. Young rushed for 451 yards and six touchdowns in 2011. … Illinois will be without A.J. Jenkins, who caught 90 balls for 1,276 yards last season which means finding production from the receiving position will be crucial. Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford are proven players and will need to step up in the fall.
Outlook: Beckman inherited a pretty good situation at Illinois. Ron Zook was an excellent recruiter and the program was stocked with talented players. The biggest hurdle will be how quickly the offense can adapt to the first-year coach’s up-tempo, attacking style of play. With a formidable offense, coupled with a steady defensive unit and a home schedule that benefits them, the Illini have the potential to make it to a postseason bowl for the third year in a row.
Sept. 1 Western Michigan
Sept. 8 at Arizona State
Sept. 15 Charleston Southern
Sept. 22 Louisiana Tech
Sept. 29 Penn State
Oct. 6 at Wisconsin
Oct. 13 at Michigan
Oct. 27 Indiana
Nov. 3 at Ohio State
Nov. 10 Minnesota
Nov. 17 Purdue
Nov. 24 at Northwestern
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