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June 27, 2013

A road map to bowl eligibility

Progress is relative term. But it's a moving target that Tim Beckman and his Fighting Illini will be taking aim at in 2013 after posting a disappointing 2-10 (0-8) record a year ago. Athletic Director Mike Thomas has been quoted as saying this team needs to "pass the eye test". That means being competitive, something that eluded the Illini in Beckman's first year in Champaign.

Most fans would probably see a 4 or 5 win season as a step in the right direction. A bowl game appearance? Almost inconceivable. Still, in our first article in our 2013 preview series, Orange and Blue News breaks down what this Illinois team needs to do, against all odds, to reach 6 wins and become bowl eligible.

The road map

Southern Illinois
Miami (Ohio)

(Record: 2-0) The only early season games in which Illinois will be favored, and both must win if the Illini have any chance to get to 6 wins. Losing to an FCS opponent to open the season could spell the beginning of the end. Prognosticators have the Miami Redhawks near the bottom of the MAC eastern division.

Washington (at Soldier Field)

(1-1) Tubby Tuberville's Bearcats posted a 10-3 record a year ago. Expect Cincinnati to field a stingy and aggressive defense that will put new Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit to the test early on. Washington returns the bulk of their playmakers from a team that lost to Boise State 28-26 in the MAACO Bowl last season. Illinois needs an upset in one of these two games. Emotions will be high at the "Chicago Homecoming" at Soldier field vs. the Huskies. A loss in that game would be a disappointment, especially if it isn't competitive.

at Nebraska
Michigan State
at Penn State
at Indiana
Ohio State
at Purdue

(3-5) There are no easy games for Illinois on the Big Ten schedule. It would have been preferred to have more winnable games at Memorial Stadium. Indiana showed signs of life in 2012. Illinois will have to outscore the Hoosiers, a team that will move the ball and puts points on the scoreboard. The Illini haven't won in West Lafayette since a 38-13 victory in 2001. And the Boilermakers could have new life with Darrell Hazell taking over the reins from Danny Hope. To get to three conference wins, the Illini will have to pull off a major upset. Michigan State at home on Oct. 26 is the most likely candidate. The Spartans return 14 starters, however, including the best linebacking corps in the conference. Hopefully MSU will be looking past Illinois to their Nov. 2 matchup with Michigan. Beckman will have to keep this team's confidence up if the losses start to mount.

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The formula

Beat Southern Illinois, beat them soundly, and do it with style. Illinois football needs some buzz. The Illini will be expected to win this one. And make no mistake, it's a must-win situation for Tim Beckman & Co. in the very first game of the year. The Illini could recover from a loss to SIU - its just one loss. But it would still be a deep 0-1 hole to dig out of, especially with much tougher opponents on the schedule the next two weeks in Cincinnati and Washington. Put some big points on that new scoreboard, build some confidence, and show that the program has a heartbeat.

Quick strikes. One-two-three-ball; that's the rhythm new Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is looking for from the quarterback (likely senior Nathan Scheelhaase). It's more of a mental adjustment than physical. With no go-to receiver on the roster Scheelhaase will need to share the wealth and get everyone involved in the passing game - wideouts, running backs, and tight ends. JUCO transfer Martize Barr gets the quickest release off of the line of scrimmage of all of the WR's - he should be a prime target on the slant routes. Josh Ferguson has big play potential coming out of the backfield. Illinois just needs Scheelhaase to execute, take care of the football, and move the chains.

Discipline in everything they do. Last in the conference in turnover margin isn't going to get it done. That's where Illinois ranked in 2012. Ball security and limiting penalties are always keys, and they will be again this season for Illinois. But it goes much deeper than that. The 2013 Illinois team will play harder. That's evident by the enthusiasm we saw in the spring. They also have to play smarter. This squad doesn't have the natural athleticism to compensate for missed assignments. Defenders with contain responsibility have to stay home and not bite on play action. Watch your gap, and don't over-pursue on the running plays. In the second year running Tim Banks' defense, there should be no early season confusion like we saw in 2012 against Arizona State. If there is, up goes the red flag.

Get a contribution from the newcomers. Illinois didn't recruit freshman quarterback Aaron Bailey to sit on the bench. Early reports are that Bailey may be the most explosive athlete on the team. For a team void of veteran playmakers, Bailey and other newcomers have to make an early impact. Martize Barr adds an aggressive and confident player to the receiving corps. Don't be surprised if he is the leading receiver for the Illini in 2013. Illinois loses 7 starters on defense, including NFL draft picks Akeem Spence, Terry Hawthorne, and Michael Buchanan. They will need immediate help from true freshmen SDE Jarrod Clemens and safety Caleb Day, two of the gems from the 2013 recruiting class. Another JUCO transfer, Eric Finney, looks like he could be a find at the "star" position.

Cut down on big plays over the top of the defense. A tall task for sophomore cornerbacks V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence. You always like to see an aggressive, attacking defense. But press coverage may not be the way to go this fall. Last season, the Illinois defense ranked 2nd in the Big Ten in opponent third down conversion and 5th in total first downs allowed. It was the big plays that burned them, and that was with a veteran unit. More speed at the safety position could help. Earnest Thomas should be a full time starter this year, with newcomers Day and Zane Petty in the rotation. And there is more depth at corner - true freshman Darius Mosely and sophomore Jevaris Little will compete for playing time. This is a group of DB's who need some help up front. It's anyone's guess who is going to put pressure on the quarterback this season.

Next up, a look at our breakout performers in 2013

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