Illinois could be Big Ten surprise in 2012

CHICAGO—With Big Ten Media Days wrapping up today and preseason camps on the horizon, let's take a look at one team that could be primed to become a darkhorse contender in the league: Illinois.

Although the Fighting Illini will be led by a head coach who will begin his debut campaign in Champaign, Tim Beckman is coming off of a strong season at Toledo, where he led the Rockets to a second consecutive bowl berth in 2011. Beckman inherited a 3-9 squad but had the team competing right away, recording a 5-7 debut mark in 2009 and bowl game berths the next two seasons. Beckman has Big Ten experience, serving as the cornerbacks coach at Ohio State, and he was Oklahoma State's defensive coordinator in 2007-08. So he's a leader who knows what it takes to win at an FBS school.

Tim Beckman Tim Beckman is in his first year as Illinois head coach.

With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the Big Ten championship game, the Leaders division has opened up a bit for the Illini. Despite the fact that Wisconsin is breaking in a new quarterback, albeit one who has had success in a pro-style scheme, as well as the Badgers returning Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball and a defense that is expected to improve, the Badgers remain the odds-on favorite to win the division. And if Purdue can get better play from its defense, the Boilermakers could be a bit of a sleeper in a big year for Danny Hope.

However, this is an Illinois team that was at one point 6-0 last season. Granted, the majoritiy of its tough contests came in the second half, when the team dropped six in a row before rebounding in its bowl game against UCLA. But Beckman does not inherit a bare cupboard in Champaign.

Nathan Scheelhaase is a talented dual-threat quarterback who is learning his third new system in as many seasons. Co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty will now lead the offense after Scheelhaase ran systems under Mike Schultz and Paul Petrino. While Beckman may be tempted to split his duties with Reilly O'Toole, it would serve the team well to let Scheelhaase be the main guy, get into a rhythm and be the No. 1 leader offensively. While the team may not have a Rashard Mendenhall or Mikel Leshoure-type back on the roster, youngsters Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson could be productive in a dual role. The key is for Scheelhaase to find a No. 1 receiver with A.J. Jenkins gone and for the offensive line to bounce back from a poor 2011. Beckman brought in former Illini Luke Butkus as O-Line coach, so we'll see if that area could get shored up.

Defensively, the biggest loss for the Illini was Vic Koenning, the coordinator who left to run North Carolina’s defense. The defensive players bought into Koenning and played hard for him, but new DC Tim Banks seemed to win the unit over in spring. Banks will have a good front four to work with despite the loss of All-American end Whitney Mercilus, who was nothing short of studly last fall. End Michael Buchanan and tackle Akeem Spence lead the way. Additionally, linebacker Jonathan Brown and cornerback Terry Hawthorne are stars.

There's also a chance that the Illini could have an even stronger roster than the current one if they are able to bring in any Penn State player who is looking to leave State College. On Thursday at Media Days, Beckman confirmed that Illinois is actively recruiting Penn State's current players. However, he said that he only spoke to those who were interested in playing in Champaign.

Even if the Illini go into the fall with their current roster, though, it is a team that has a chance in the Leaders division if it catches a few breaks. Back-to-back road contests against Wisconsin and Michigan to kick off October will define this team, which has the talent to steal a win at one of those venues if the offense can complement what should be a sound defense.

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