Two more agonizing days await us before the beginning of the Illini football season. In anticipation of this holy event, the Champaign Room staff decided to put together a special predictions post for you.
We polled all of our available editors, writers, and contributors to come up with a preview of the 2014 season. Several questions were asked, the majority of which were focused solely on the Illini. I've compiled all of our answers into this post, which also contains my thoughts on each question and a few select words from the rest of the staff.
One more note before we get started: some answers may have differing numbers of responses: this is just because some people didn't have answers for a couple questions. Don't worry about it, and if you #WellActually me in the comments, I'll ban you from the website forever. Okay, let's do this thing.
Will Wes Lunt throw for more or less yardage than Nate Scheelhaase last year (3,272 yards)?
The majority of the TCR staff is pretty confident that Wes Lunt isn't going to eclipse the fantastic season that Scheelhaase delivered in 2013. On the surface, this doesn't really make sense. Lunt has a much more impressive arm than Scheelhaase and should be using his legs considerably less. So, why wouldn't he exceed Nate's yardage? The simple answer is experience. Most of the TCR staff foresees some growing pains for Lunt in his first season with a starting role:
Trevor Vallese, Staff Writer: Less. Nathan Scheelhaase led the entire conference last season in passing yards, and it wasn't even close between him and the number two QB, Devin Gardner. While Lunt can sling the ball and has a very powerful arm by all accounts, he has no game experience with his wide receivers and it might take some time for them all to gel. I'm not saying he won't have a great year, but Scheelhaase's 2013 campaign was historic; Lunt's may not be quite THAT good.
Aaron Rench, Editor: Less. Scheelhaase had one of the greatest single seasons in Illini history last year. If the defense hadn't stunk so bad, people outside Illini Nation might have noticed it. But a new quarterback in Lunt, even though he does have experience from OK State, and a glaringly green stock of receivers, there's not really a chance Lunt can reach Scheelhaase's numbers in year one.
James Ibeck, Contributor: More. That's 252 yards per game, including a bowl game. Lunt should eclipse that easily.
Will Josh Ferguson finish with over/under 1,000 rushing yards this season?
For our writers, this question basically came down to how you view the balance of the offense this year. OC Bill Cubit was pass-happy in 2013, relying on quick routes often to pick up yards on first down. If enough of those passes turn into rushes this year, it seems likely that Ferguson gets over that 1,000 yard mark.
While I answered "Over" for this question, I've been rethinking that recently. It appears that Donovonn Young is likely to contribute more than I anticipated this year, which could prevent Fergy from reaching the 1k mark. Here's more from the rest of our staff:
Mark Primiano, Editor: Over. Ferguson finished with 779 rushing yards last season while not starting the season as the featured back. He will be this year.
Bryce Smith, Staff Writer: Under. Under. I think the passing game will be explosive and the running game will take a back seat (not to mention the Illini will likely be playing from behind an awful lot). 51 guys in all of Division I ran for 1,000 yards last season. I don't think Ferguson gets it.
Aaron Rench, Editor: Over. What I'm more interested in will be his all-purpose yards. Last year he totaled 1351 AP yards, which put him in 10th place among all B1G players. What's interesting to me is that Ferguson had the most even percentage between rushing and receiving stats -- 57.7% rushing, 42.3% receiving. He's an all-around stud, who is our best weapon on the field. If he plays to his full potential, he could be among the leaders of the AP yards come season end.
Who will finish with the most receiving yards?
Geronimo Allison: 5
Martize Barr: 2
Josh Ferguson: 1
Mikey Dudek: 1
Answers to this question were a bit of a mixed bag, as you can see. Generally speaking though, there are two sides to the coin. There are those who believe that the number one receiver out of camp, Geronimo Allison, will be enough of a go-to guy that he'll lead the team in yardage. In the other camp, there are those who believe the slot receivers, running backs, and underneath routes will rule the day.
I picked Geronimo for this one, but I'm not too confident in that. I think we'll see a pretty even distribution amongst the corps this year, so it seems up in the air. Martize Barr would be my second choice.
Brad Repplinger, Contributor: Geronimo Allison. Geronimo Allison is my guy this season. Coming off an 8TD catch year with 872 yds in JUCO, he's the 6-4 target our QB needs to replace Steve Hull.
James Ibeck, Contributor: Josh Ferguson. He is going to do it all this year and will be a safety valve many times. Thinking 10 guys may have anywhere from 10-30 receptions though.
Collin Whitchurch, Staff Writer: Martize Barr. Something tells me he makes the leap this year with Lunt under center.
Who will be the leading tackler of the defense?
Mason Monheim: 4.5
Earnest Thomas III: 4.5
Everybody agrees on this one: these two linebackers are likely to finish with the most tackles this year. It seems pretty simple: Monheim has led the team in tackles before and is all set up for a stellar junior year, while Earnest Thomas III just switched to a position which allows him to roam the field and hit people, as he is wont to do.
The only other name I'd throw in here would be TJ Neal-he should have a great deal of tackles from the middle linebacker spot this year. I chose ET3, mostly because he'll be getting a ton of tackles in both the opponent's passing game and running game. The staff:
Mark Primiano, Editor: Mason Monheim. Earnest Thomas III in a close second. Until the defense proves they can stop the run, teams will be coming up the gut. That gives Monheim the edge.
Aaron Rench, Editor: Either Mason Monheim OR Earnest Thomas III, but it depends on the D-Line. If the D-Line can push back and actually clog some of the running lanes, then Monheim gets to most of the ball-carriers, otherwise, with rushers running at least five yards before getting touched, then Thomas gets all the tackles.
Who will finish with the most sacks?
Kenny Nelson: 4
Jihad Ward: 2
Austin Teitsma: 1
TJ Neal: 1
Earnest Thomas III: 1
Kenny Nelson seems like the sound choice here. He's going to get the most snaps out of anybody at defensive end, which tends to lead to sacks. Jihad Ward has a case here, as he'll probably see a lot of third down snaps where Tim Banks just tells him "Go hurt somebody." As for the other two, it seems like some members of our staff are expecting the Illini to create pressure up the middle. I can't say I agree, but that's okay! As humans, we are allowed to disagree. Unless you think pancakes are better than waffles or French toast. I don't get into arguments with people who don't possess brains.
Trevor Vallese, Staff Writer: Kenny Nelson. By default. Most likely a DE will lead in sacks with Tim Banks' passive defense and defensive tackles getting gobbled up.
Mark Primiano, Editor: Jihad Ward. Ward has the raw size and talent advantage over everyone as well as the fact that no one will know how to prepare for him until halfway through the year or so.
Who will have the most interceptions in 2014?
V'Angelo Bentley: 4
Zane Petty: 2
Eaton Spence: 1
Earnest Thomas III: 1
Darius Mosely: 1
We got a hugely mixed bag here, which probably makes sense when the team in question only totals three interceptions in the previous season. I put Eaton Spence down for this question. Spence is the more physical starting corner, the boundary side to V'Angelo's field side. He may not be athletic, but he seemed to be better in coverage last year and I believe that continues in 2014. While I think it's pretty much a crapshoot, I chose Spence to grab a couple more than anybody else. Here's the rest of our staff:
Jim Vainisi, Manager/Editor: I'm gonna go with V'Angelo Bentley as he'll probably be covering the opposing #1 and being thrown at more often than anyone.
Brad Repplinger, Contributor: Zane Petty. He stepped up HUGE last year starting in week 6 and he's shown us that he can play. Look for #21 to be swarming to the ball this season...and maybe provide a few pick 6's.
Collin Whitchurch, Staff Writer: Will the individual leader have more than one interception this year? I'm going with Darius Mosley. He's not starting on the depth chart as of right now, but I think that will change before long.
Who will be the offensive MVP this year?
Josh Ferguson: 8
Wes Lunt: 2
Just about everybody agrees here-Josh Ferguson is the most talented player we have on the offense this season. Given that most of us are expecting growing pains for Lunt in his first season, this makes sense. Put simply, Ferguson is a back who can do-it-all with an offensive coordinator who knows just how to use him. He should have a monstrous junior season.
Aaron Rench, Editor: Josh Ferguson. C'mon make these questions harder.
Jim Vainisi, Manager/Editor: Josh Ferguson. Wes Lunt will have a good season, but I think it'll be Ferguson. He'll lead the team in rushing and be one of the top 3 receivers.
Mark Primiano, Editor: Wes Lunt. It was hard to go against Ferguson, who I can honestly see cracking 1,600 yards from scrimmage. But since I already said Lunt would throw for more yards than 2013 Scheelhaase, it would make sense for him to be near the top of the conference in passing TDs as well. If that happens, he's the team MVP.
Who will be the defensive MVP this year?
Earnest Thomas III: 7
Mason Monheim: 3
Everybody is predicting a breakout season for Earnest Thomas III, the senior STAR, and it's hard to believe that won't come to fruition. He's looked great in camp, and though he will have to adjust to his new positional responsibilities, his athleticism should make up for any small mistakes he makes in the nonconference schedule. By the time Big Ten season rolls around, he should be ready and raring to go. Monheim also gets a couple votes here, and it's definitely possible that he returns to the level he was at during his freshman season (or above).
Mark Primiano, Editor: Earnest Thomas III. He's going to be in the top three in both tackles and interceptions. It's his senior year and he wants to get drafted. The motivation and talent are both there for a big final year.
Brad Repplinger, Contributor: Mason Monheim. A smart LB who can read defenses is going to be a big factor in the success of our defense. We already know Mason is a good player...but just how good is he?
What junior or senior will make the biggest jump from their production last year?
V'Angelo Bentley: 2
Geronimo Allison: 1
Martize Barr: 1
Jon Davis: 1
Eaton Spence: 1
Donovonn Young: 1
Matt LaCosse: 1
Ted Karras: 1
Taylor Zalewski: 1
Answers to this question spanned both offense and defense, from both starting tight ends to both starting cornerbacks. There were a few really interesting responses here, and all those chosen would be great candidates.
Personally, I'm taking Matt LaCosse. I'm expecting Bill Cubit to show a lot of two tight end formations this year, given the inexperience at wide receiver, so it would make sense that one of these tight ends breaks out and puts up big numbers. Davis is a better blocker and likely all-around player than LaCosse, but LaCosse's size and receiving ability will make him a frequent weapon for Wes Lunt in an offense with some butter-fingered wide receivers. Here's the rest of TCR on some of their selections:
Trevor Vallese, Staff Writer: V'Angelo Bentley. While it may seem like he's already leaps and bounds ahead of other players due to his kick-return abilities, I'm saying this with his defensive capabilities in mind. Although he may have looked like Devin Hester in his prime on special teams, he also struggled as a cornerback for a good part of the season. I think he will take a huge step forward as a CORNERBACK in 2014, but also not have any drop-off in production as a RETURNER as well.
Aaron Rench, Editor: Right guard Ted Karras. Last year was pretty solid from him, when he played in every game. Another year of experience and muscle-building could spark NFL talks for 2016 if he plays his defensive opponents right. I know O-Line isn't the most glamourous position, but Karras is someone to keep an eye on.
Mark Primiano, Editor: Geronimo Allison. He's going from a JUCO WR to at least 800 yards receiving in the Big Ten. That's a massive jump forward and he'll handle it well.
With how many wins will the Fighting Illini finish the regular season?
Six Wins: 8
Seven Wins: 1
Eight Wins: 1
Well, this is what happens when you poll a bunch of Illini fans. For a team that is most likely to win either five or six games, all ten participating writers predicted that the Illini would be bowl bound and one even predicted eight wins.
While this seems a bit homerific, I think most of our writers would agree that five or six wins are the most likely outcomes. Nobody wants to be that guy who says Illinois won't be bowling this winter. I think it comes down to four games: Iowa, Penn State, and Minnesota at home, and Northwestern on the road. If they can win two of those games, they're in a bowl, and I think that has a good enough chance of happening. Here's the reasoning from the rest of our writers:
Aaron Rench, Editor: Six wins. I'm trying to keep this as homer-less as possible. I love the Illini and pouring over their roster all summer may have added unwarranted greatness to them. But I really do see a big improvement for the Fighting Beckmans. I see them going 6-6 with wins over Purdue, Minnesota, and Penn State.
Bryce Smith, Staff Writer: Eight wins. 8-4. I know, I know. I see an upset against Washington (suspensions, new coach) and Iowa/ Minnesota. Wes Lunt and the offense will be consistent and the defense will be improved. Our games will be a lot closer this year.
Will Tim Beckman be retained for the 2015 season?
Everyone thinks Beckman is coming back next season, probably because everyone is predicting that we'll make a bowl game. At this point, after 2,500 words, you're probably slumped over in your seat and gasping for air. That's okay: Illinois Football Overdose is a serious problem that affects tens if not hundreds of Americans every decade. Out of respect to you, the reader, I'll shut up and give Trevor and Mark the final word:
Trevor Vallese, Staff Writer: Yes. With the consistent improvement shown on both sides of the ball since Beckman arrived and the recent upswing in recruits committing, I think he deserves a fourth year if the Illini finish 5-7 or above. I'm actually OK with him being retained if the team doesn't make it to a bowl game, as long as they're consistently competitive and are never too far out of a ballgame.
Mark Primiano, Editor: Yes. Can't fire a guy after two seasons of improvement and a trip to a bowl game.
With all of that said ad nauseam, we want to open up the conversation to you! Feel free to discuss any of these questions with us in the comments or tell us why we're stupid and you are always correct!