Two wins. Four wins. Then what?
That's the biggest question heading into the third year of the Tim Beckman Era in Champaign.
The Illini have struggled on the field since Beckman took over before the 2012 season. Improvement has come in the record, as it has in other numbers (most of them on the offensive side of the ball). But the magic number that most fans care about is six. Six is the number of wins that makes a team bowl eligible. There has been no postseason appearance under Beckman, and even if they're showing little patience, Illini fans are getting a bit restless.
Though when it comes to the goal of reaching a bowl game, fans should know that the team shares their frustration.
“You see teams, they’re preparing for the bowl game, and you’re coming off a losing season. And it hurts," linebacker Mason Monheim said Sunday at the team's media day in Champaign. "I think what the guys did is they kept that in the back of their minds this offseason, how it felt when we walked off the field losing to Northwestern in our last game with four wins. We don’t want that anymore. We’re playing with a purpose now. We’re practicing with it, you can tell.”
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“I want it for our players," Beckman said. "To me, the reward is opportunities to go to bowl games. Not a reward meaning, ‘Hey I get a backpack.’ They get an opportunity to go somewhere in this country most of these guys have never been and play. These youngsters, our student-athletes, they’ve worked extremely hard, as hard as I’ve been around. And they’ll continue to work hard. So whatever we can do to reward their heart that they have given us.”
There might be a sizable contingent of observers who find it difficult for the Illini to make a jump from the bottom of the Big Ten to the conference's level of respectability given that many of Illinois' opponents are tough ones. That's what happens when you play in the Big Ten. But as Beckman pointed out, change can happen in a hurry, even in the most competitive of leagues.
"Well, four wins was last year. We have got to be better than that. And of course you talk about bowl games, that’s six wins. I believe that there was a team last year that competed in the national championship that won three games the year before," Beckman said. "We want to make strides with this program.”
The head coach is referring to Auburn, which went winless in the SEC in 2012 before winning that conference's championship and a trip to the national title game a season ago. He didn't make any direct comparisons to his Illini, but it was a useful illustration.
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Still, Beckman has won just six games in two seasons, only one of which came during Big Ten play. Fans are expecting more. And though getting to a bowl game is certainly a realistic goal for this season, it might be hard to visualize given the performance of the past two years.
It's why Beckman is suggesting that change can happen for the better even when the wins aren't piling up. He argues things are going in the right direction.
“I want to win. But this program is moving the direction we want it moving, and we want it to progress," Beckman said. "From academics, to social life, to football, you can see the change that’s been going on. And again, it’s not anything that I’ve done. I just set the plan, or the staff did. And the kids grasp it. We have an outstanding group of players. They are fun to be around, and they work extremely hard. If you tell them to do something, they do it.”
Those players have a goal to reach the postseason this year. If they accomplish that, they might help reinforce their head coach's approach and lower the imagined temperature on his proverbial seat.