What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he (or she) answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? Today: Jim from The Champaign Room, SB Nation's fine blog for all things Illinois.
1) Speaking of expectations... what were Illini fans thinking heading into this year? And how has that changed six weeks into the season? Was firing Tim Beckman before the season a huge case of addition by subtraction?
I think that was absolutely the case, and this is coming from someone who was a Beckman supporter for most of his tenure. Beckman did some good things off the field and while his teams were pretty abysmal, they were showing constant improvement on a year-to-year basis. But the looming cloud of his job status had to have taken such a toll on the players -- there were questions asked about it every week for two years. Now everyone is just free to football.
Heading into the season I think you were going to see an improved team no matter who the coach was, but the Illini have just about exceeded all expectations to this point. 4-1 was probably the absolute best-case scenario, but fans certainly weren't predicting that fourth win would come over Nebraska.
If we're being honest, this year really doesn't matter for Illinois in the grand scheme of things, but I do think expectations have been slightly altered. Dare I say it'd be a disappointment if the Illini miss out on a bowl game?
2) What does Bill Cubit have to do this season to get the Illinois job full-time? If Cubit isn't retained after this year, who are the favorites to be the new head coach at Illinois?
Under normal circumstances, Cubit would probably have to win seven or eight games to truly be considered a candidate for the full-time job (he'll surely get a ‘look' regardless). But the current situation at Illinois may end up benefiting him during the hiring process. A lot of fans want AD Mike Thomas gone and he doesn't have much job security at the moment. On top of that, former Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise just stepped down and the university is looking for a replacement. That doesn't seem like an appealing situation for a prospective coach, right? So it wouldn't be out of the question for Cubit to get a two-three year deal while the administration figures everything out.
We've been following potential candidates' teams pretty closely over at TCR. At the moment, I'd personally like Illinois to hire Justin Fuente (Memphis) this offseason and it sounds like he's at or near the top of everyone's wish list. Dino Babers (Bowling Green), Tom Hermon (Houston), P.J. Fleck (Western Michigan), Jeff Brohm (Western Kentucky), and Rod Carey (Northern Illinois) are other names being tossed around by fans. Others will pop up between now and the end of the season.
3) Congratulations on beating Nebraska last week -- that's always fun. How big was that win for the Illini? Also: where did that come from? The only other game you guys had played against a Power 5 opponent this year was North Carolina and that, uh, didn't go so well.
It was huge because Illinois finally looked like they belonged on the same field as quality opponent. Tommy Armstrong III couldn't do anything through the air, and he was limited to just 10-31 passing for 105 yards. Jordan Westerkamp had 1 reception for -1 yard. So, yea, it wasn't a good afternoon for the Cornhuskers' offense.
I'll touch on the UNC game a bit more in a moment, but the Illini really shot themselves in the foot that weekend -- and that's been a theme for our Power Five road games during the Beckman/Cubit era. The offense had several great opportunities to get on the board, but they weren't able to do anything until garbage time.
4) Illinois' fast start in 2015 seems to be fueled largely by their defense, which has been really good, aside from the debacle against North Carolina. What's been the secret to their success on that side of the ball? Who should Iowa fans watch out for on Saturday?
Without a doubt, and my biased take is that the Illinois defense is one of the biggest surprises in all of college football; I mean, this is a unit that would've had a hard time stopping me and 10 of my friends a year ago. Fast forward a few months and this is the No. 9 defense in the country according to the latest S&P+ numbers. The 14-48 loss to North Carolina is very misleading because a lot of those points came from offensive turnovers and special teams miscues (adjusted scoring margin was only 14.8 points). The Illini followed that performance up by completely shutting down a Middle Tennessee team that entered Week 4 with one of the best offenses in the country.
One of the major differences from a year ago is Illinois' newfound ability to create turnovers. The Illini have been atrocious in that area for the past decade; over that time frame, they were dead last at the FBS level in interceptions. But it's been a completely different story this year. Combined, the unit has already logged 7 interceptions (!!), including 3 from safety Taylor Barton.
5) How much is Josh Ferguson's absence going to hurt Illinois' offense on Saturday? Who should Iowa fans know about on offense other than Wes Lunt?
Losing Ferguson is tough because he's one of the most dynamic/elusive backs in the country, but Illinois is at least somewhat equipped to handle the injury. Make no mistake -- the depth chart at the position is in absolute shambles due to other injuries right now, but freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn and JUCO transfer Henry Enyenihi should be able to handle the load. Vaughn came to Champaign this summer as a four-star recruit and he's played very, very well as the backup this season; he's totaled 325 yards (4.3 ypc) and 2 TD so far. He can get a bit lost when helping out in pass protection, but that's fairly typical of first-year running backs at the collegiate level.
Illinois' receiving corps is, uh, not good. Mikey Dudek and Justin Hardee could both miss the entire season with injuries and there's been a rather significant dropoff in talent on the outside. Having said that, Geronimo Allison has been a bright spot. The senior is clearly Wes Lunt's No. 1 target and he's even been added to the Biletnikoff Award Watch List after leading the Big Ten in receptions (32) and yards (453) through five weeks.
6) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
Iowa is a really good team that should be getting more national attention than they already are. But, shockingly, Illinois is also a pretty good team so we could very well be in store for a good game this weekend.
I'd feel a lot more confident if this contest was being played in Champaign, but it's not. The Illini still need to figure out how to succeed on the road and that's not going to happen on the fly in Iowa City. I think Illinois' defense will keep things close for about three quarters before Iowa pulls away early in the fourth.
Iowa 27, Illinois 17
Thanks for being a good sport, Jim, but I still hope your team gets mollywhopped tomorrow. You can check out the TCR crew at The Champaign Room. You can also follow Jim on Twitter at @JimVainisi and TCR at @Champaign_Room. The Iowa-Illinois game is in Iowa City, IA on Saturday, October 10, and is scheduled to start at approximately 11:00 am CT, with TV coverage from ESPN2.