Illinois running back Josh Ferguson is one of the team's top returning players this season. (Bradley Leeb / USA Today Sports / September 28, 2013)
The Orlando Sentinel's college insider Matt Murschel has ranked all 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country entering the 2014 season. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 128 to our projected No. 1 team.
Today at No 97: Illinois Fighting Illini
Coach: Tim Beckman (6-18, entering third season; 27-35 overall)
2013 record: 4-8 (1-7 in Big Ten Conference, fifth in Leaders Division)
Look back: Tim Beckman and his staff continue the process of remolding Illinois into a program capable of winning consistently. After a disappointing two-win season in 2012, the Illini opened 2013 by winning three of their first four games. However, the team went through some growing pains, especially defensively, and lost seven of its final eight contests.
Offensive starters returning: 7
Offensive starters lost: 5
Defensive starters returning: 8
Defensive starters lost: 3
Key losses: QB Nathan Scheelhaase, WR Spencer Harris, WR Steve Hull, WR Ryan Lankford, LB Jonathan Brown, DL Tim Kynard, LB Houston Bates
Top returnees: RB Josh Ferguson, C Alex Hill, DB V'Angelo Bentley, DB Earnest Thomas III, LB Mason Monheim, S Zane Petty, LB Mike Svetina
Strengths: Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit worked wonders with the unit, with Illinois finishing the season with the second-best passing offense in the conference. His work with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase helped the senior finish the year as the league's top passer with 3,272 yards. Scheelhaase's departure, however, leaves a huge hole to fill in the program. A trio of qualified candidates exist with Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt, Aaron Bailey and Reilly O'Toole all battling for the top spot. Lunt last saw action in 2012 with the Cowboys, where he threw for more than 1,000 yards and six touchdowns in limited action.
The Illini will have the luxury of returning their top two rushers from last season in Josh Ferguson (779 yards, 7 TDs) and Donovonn Young (376 yards, 3 TDs). The offensive line returns four of its five starters including Michael Heitz, Simon Cvijanovic and Ted Karras, who combined have 79 career starts under their belts.
Weaknesses: Illinois struggled to force opponents to make mistakes. The Illini were last in the league in interceptions (3) and second-to-last in turnover margin (-10). As a whole, the defense finished next-to-last in total defense, allowing more than 480 yards per game. The good news is this unit returns eight starters from last season, but it must fill the loss of Jonathan Brown, who was the spark plug of the defense. The linebacker led the team in total tackles (119) and sacks (5.0). Finding his replacement won't be easy. Linebacker Mason Monheim (97 tackles) will anchor the middle along with Mike Svetina (57). The secondary struggled at times last season, allowing more than 242 yards per game while only intercepting three passes.
Outlook: Illinois has three winning seasons in the past decade with the last one coming in 2011, but the program isn’t that far removed from a Rose Bowl appearance in 2007. Fans get tired of the word patience, but in this case it fits. The offense was one of the best in the Big Ten last season under Bill Cubit and with the right quarterback, it could be even better. It’s the defense that’s holding this team back - allowing more than 30 points in eight of the team’s 12 games. However, it may be tough for Illinois to improve its Bit Ten record much thanks to a brutal schedule that features road games against Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Aug. 30 Youngstown State
Sept. 6 Western Kentucky
Sept. 13 at Washington
Sept. 20 Texas State