ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
1. Settle on a quarterback
Tim Beckman had success at Toledo, using quarterbacks Austin Dantin and Terrance Owens equally. The Rockets’ offensive proficiency in 2011 is more the exception than the rule, though, as Beckman saw in his debut season in Champaign.
Beckman immediately declared all positions open upon his arrival. Two-year returning starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was among those thrust into a competition before the season opened — a competition he eventually won, but remained in throughout the season.
Reilly O’Toole played well in place of an injured Scheelhaase during the 2011 season, and last year was still decent considering the myriad problems the Illini had. Either option has proven he can play, but Beckman must avoid a revolving door when possible. Either is likely to feel pressure from Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt regardless; the added stress of a quick hook would make for a difficult quarterbacking situation.
2. Adapt to Cubit’s offense
Lunt’s presence on the Illini sideline is sure to have UI fans itching for 2014, but the offensive progress Illinois makes in 2013 is integral to Lunt’s success. Lunt should flourish under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, whose system at Western Michigan called for plenty of vertical passing.
The Illini receivers, ball carriers and blockers who will return for 2014 get a year to bone up on the more pass-intensive system, something with which Lunt is already well acquainted from his season playing for Todd Monken and Mike Gundy.
3. Measured improvement
Very little went right in Beckman’s debut season as head coach. There was a time when head coaches were afforded a complete recruiting cycle to rebuild programs, but recent examples at Colorado and Kansas prove that coaches need tangible results by Year 2.
Beckman inherited a seven-win team but went 2-10. That surprising reversal of fortune makes his seat just a little bit hotter. Because Illinois is undergoing change and plays a challenging schedule — it sees Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern from the Legends — a bowl might not be realistic. However, stealing road games against Purdue and Indiana, holding home field against MSU and Northwester, splitting the non-conference: all are attainable goals. A five-win season should buy Beckman another season to get Lunt on the field.
1. Shed points
With nine returning starters on the defensive side, IU has one of the most experienced groups in the Big Ten. Unfortunately, it’s a group coming off in which it allowed 35.3 points per game. Primarily against Big Ten competition. Eek.
Kevin Wilson’s offensive acumen is evident in the Hoosiers’ vast, one-year improvement. Doug Mallory is charged with a similar turnaround of the defense. He doesn’t need IU to evolve into the ’85 Bears, but shedding at least a touchdown per game off the weekly average would almost guarantee the Hoosiers a spot in the postseason. It would also establish Doug’s place in IU football history alongside his dad, Bill Mallory.
2. 3-1 out-of-conference is a must
Indiana’s non-conference schedule isn’t as soft as in years past. The Hoosiers open with FCS Indiana State, a program Trent Miles (now at Georgia State) transformed from the longest Div. I win streak this century, to a legitimate playoff contender. Nevertheless, the Sycamores should be a W.
Navy and Bowling Green both played in bowl games last season, but are both non-BCS opponents. A legitimate bowl contender from the Big Ten should win such contests.
Should the Hoosiers slip up, they have to protect home field against Missouri. A 3-1 non-conference is very much a possibility, which widens the Hoosiers’ margin for error upon entering conference play.
3. Get over the hump
Indiana came oh-so-close to a trio of wins that would have been marquee for Wilson, and would have sent the Hoosiers to their first bowl game since 2007. The first was a 31-27 loss to Michigan State, followed by a raucous rally that fell three points short against Ohio State. Capping off this heartbreaking run was a 31-30 defeat to Navy.
That’s three consecutive games, decided by eight points. Add a two-point loss to Ball State, and you’re talking about a team that was a touchdown, extra point and field goal separated from eight wins.
Learning to win such games can be a bugaboo for typically unsuccessful programs. Indiana must find the depth and resolve to close out close contests.
OHIO STATE BUCKEYES
1. Keep Braxton Miller healthy
The star quarterback and a preseason Heisman favorite, Braxton Miller carries the BCS championship aspirations of a boisterous fan base on his capable arm and fast feet.
Keeping its starting quarterback healthy and on the field is a priority for any football team, but it’s particularly imperative for Ohio State in 2013. Miller was seemingly born to play in Urban Meyer’s system, and indeed, much of the offense flowed through him last season.
Ohio State doesn’t need to worry about regressing to the Joe Bauserman era without Miller in the lineup; Ken Guiton proved his mettle in the Buckeyes’ rally over Purdue last year. Still, Miller is the team’s hope for another undefeated run and first BCS championship appearance since the 2007 season.
2. Forget Florida
Urban Meyer’s arrival in Columbus sent pundits into a tizzy, many of whom drew immediate parallels between his new program and old. An oft-repeated refrain was that Meyer needed to find “a Percy Harvin” for his offense to function.
The Buckeyes didn’t light the world on fire offensively in Meyer’s debut campaign, but were serviceable. Moreover, flashes of a unique identity were evident in the play of Miller, running back Carlos Brown, and the wide receiving tandem of Devin Smith and Philly Brown.
Ohio State isn’t Florida, but it also doesn’t need to be.
3. Create separation
Ohio State has already proven it can run the table with many of these players, under this coaching regime. But the Buckeyes did so walking a razor’s edge: five of their wins in Big Ten play were by single digits, including two in overtime. A team can only test fate so often before it trips up.
To that end, the Buckeyes’ dominate defense can establish the tone early. With play-making blitzing linebacker Ryan Shazier giving opposing quarterbacks headaches, and the talented secondary of Bradley Roby, C.J. Barnett and Christian Brady, Ohio State should be able to create turnovers that can be parlayed into points, and thus larger advantages down the stretch.