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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: Illinois (7-6, 2-6)

Illinois is only good at football when it has a Butkus. Any Butkus will do, whether Dick, Mark or Luke, but this is important: Illinois must have a Butkus. Illinois went 16-11-1 from 1962-64, when Dick was wreaking havoc at linebacker. Thanks in part to Mark’s all-American play at defensive tackle, the Illini went 27-18-1 from 1980-83. Luke, an all-Big Ten center, helped Illinois go 26-20 from 1998-2001. Illinois has won three outright Big Ten titles in six decades: 1963, 1983 and 2001. Dick, Mark and Luke. Combined, the family Butkus holds a career record of 69-49-2, winning games at 58.5 percent clip. Without a Butkus, Illinois is 511-48-48 — a winning percentage of 51.3 percent. In summation: For Illinois, it’s either Butkus or bubkes.

This is timely, as Luke, formerly a quality control assistant with the Seattle Seahawks, was hired in early January as Tim Beckman’s offensive line coach. Beckman, who won eight games in each of the last two years at Toledo, clearly knows his history.

One issue: Butkus — Luke, that is — has never been a true position coach, though he did assist with offensive line duties over his two seasons as part of Pete Carroll’s staff, from 2010-11. Before that, he spent another three years as an offensive assistant, specializing on the offensive line, with the Chicago Bears.

The lack of prototypical experience clearly wasn’t an issue for Beckman, who also hired a pair of offensive coordinators without any major coordinator experience. Billy Gonzalez has been the wide receivers coach at L.S.U., Florida and Utah, but never a coordinator. Chris Beatty spent one year as the coordinator at Hampton, but his F.B.S. experience has taken him from Northern Illinois to West Virginia to Vanderbilt, all as an offensive position coach.

What Gonzalez and Beatty can do, however, is recruit. Gonzalez was the recruiting coordinator under Urban Meyer with the Gators, which is certainly noteworthy. Beatty was the recruiting coordinator under James Franklin during his lone season at Vanderbilt, helping the Commodores land what most believe to be the finest recruiting class in school history.

What coaches will do for the sake of recruiting. And rightfully so, perhaps, since programs that don’t keep up with the Joneses — Ohio State, for starters — will soon find themselves fighting over leftovers, and soon after that will find themselves squeaking into the least appealing bowl games possible, if not worse. Gonzalez and Beatty will certainly help open doors for Illinois on the recruiting trail, but can either make the grade as a B.C.S. conference coordinator?

To be fair, the Illini have an experienced offensive coordinator on hand; he’s the running backs coach and special teams coordinator, however. Tim Salem was Purdue’s offensive coordinator from 1994-96 and led Eastern Michigan’s paltry attack in 2003. In addition, he was the coordinator at U.C.F. from 2004-8 before being demoted to tight ends coach over the last three seasons.

Boiled down, Illinois’ new staff consists of co-offensive coordinators who have one year of combined coordinator experience, with that coming at Hampton; an offensive line coach who has yet to handle those duties on his own, either in college or the N.F.L.; a tight ends coach, Alex Golesh, who came over with Beckman from Toledo; and a running backs coach with coordinator experience, even if his track record in that position is fairly spotty, to be kind.

Eleven B.C.S. conference programs changed head coaches following the 2011 season. Of those 11, only Illinois and Pittsburgh — and not counting Kansas, where Charlie Weis will be his own offensive coordinator, and Penn State, where Bill O’Brien will do the same — named a coordinator without prior experience in that position on the F.B.S. level. The Panthers’ new head coach, Paul Chryst, will have an enormous hand in what his team does offensively.

In his first staff with the Illini, Beckman is rolling the dice on a pair of position coaches with no meaningful coordinator experience, hoping that both have gained enough knowledge as position coaches to hit the ground running in a fairly open Leaders division. On the other hand, he hired a Butkus. Based on history, the latter hire should be enough to lift the Illini out of its current malaise.

Season grade: D+ It’s better to fail from the start than crash and burn in the same fashion as Illinois a season ago, when the Illini started 6-0 before losing six straight to end the regular season. This was Ron Zook: bad, then worse, then shockingly good, then abysmal, then good, then horrifyingly bad. In the very least, Beckman needs to balance out the bi-polar traits Illinois developed under Zook’s watch. Last year’s team, while able to reach bowl play for the second straight season, suffered a precipitous slide in offensive production: fourth in the Big Ten in scoring and total offense in 2010, the Illini finished ninth in both categories last fall. The defense was there to carry the load, but the offense disappeared. That was disappointing, much like Zook’s entire tenure.

High point Over the first half of the season, Illinois beat Arkansas State, then-No. 22 Arizona State, Western Michigan and Northwestern. That’s four bowl teams, even if the Sun Devils and Wildcats squeezed into postseason play by the skin of their teeth.

Low point Any point from Oct. 15 on, with special attention paid to a mailed-in loss to Minnesota in the regular season finale. The Golden Gophers didn’t just win; they dominated.

Offensive M.V.P. Somehow, A.J. Jenkins (90 receptions for 1,276 yards and 8 touchdowns) led the Big Ten in receptions despite Illinois’ disappointingly pedestrian quarterback play — it wasn’t a banner sophomore season for Nathan Scheelhaase — and an atrocious running game. Jenkins accounted for 39.8 percent of Illinois’ catches, 53.3 percent of its receiving yards and 57.1 percent of its receiving scores. Fourteen teams featured a receiver with at least 90 receptions in 2011; only four of those teams ranked worse than 35th nationally in total offense. Notre Dame was 49th. California was 53rd. Rutgers ranked 65th. Illinois came in at 91st. It’s frightening to think of how inept this offense would have been without Jenkins at receiver.

Defensive M.V.P. To say that Whitney Mercilus was a non-presence in 2010 would be a bit of an overstatement: Mercilus was in the mix as a reserve defensive lineman, just did nothing to expect he’d break through in the way he did as a junior. And break through Mercilus did, quietly adding notches to his belt before eventually making a national name for himself during Big Ten play. When the dust cleared, Mercilus had as many sacks, 16, as he did tackles during the 2010 season. He had at least one sack in five straight games from Arizona State to Ohio State, including a season-high three sacks in Illinois’ 41-20 win over Indiana. After going without a sack against Purdue, Mercilus embarked on another five-game sack streak to close the season. For his efforts, Mercilus became Illinois’ first consensus all-American defensive lineman since Moe Gardner in 1990.

Stock watch Step one: Beckman must change the entire culture of the program. This is often a cliché — new guy comes in, put new signs on the locker room walls — but for Beckman, no endeavor will define his first season than his attempts at building a positive, team-first attitude at Illinois. He’ll have some pieces to work with, but winning immediately will be a tall order. There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done on offense, and to be honest, Illinois could really use a seasoned, battle-tested coordinator to help last year’s inept group move into the upper tier of the Big Ten. In his defense, Beckman did bring in a strong defensive staff, led by former Cincinnati defense coordinator Tim Banks. If the defense is again going to carry Illinois to bowl play, Banks and the rest of the defensive staff must find a way to replace the tremendous production lost when Mercilus opted to forego his final season of eligibility.

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  1. philip says:

    bubkes. not the review — the whole series of which are mad genius to get us to the 2012 countdown — the spelling of the word. merriam-webster says it’s likely of yiddish origin. means “goat droppings,” which is nice.

    Paul: That’s not bubkes.

  2. SMD says:

    Illinois – preseason rank 57. Record, 7-6 with a bowl win. Season rating: D+

    Northwestern – preseason rank 35. Record, 6-7 with a bowl loss. Season rating: B.

    Purple glasses much :-)

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