An FCS opponent doesn't necessarily get the juices flowing for college football fan bases, but it's a different story when it comes to players and coaches.
The Fighting Illini open their 2013 campaign Saturday morning in Champaign against Southern Illinois, one of the traditional FCS opponents that come with an FBS team's non-conference schedule. But no matter how outsiders are evaluating the strength of the Salukis, the Illini are not planning on taking them lightly.
"We know we've got a worthy opponent that's done extremely well here late in their football season last year, got a lot of great football players back," Beckman said Monday. "There's a lot of faces that SIU has back from a football team that really, in my opinion, got better and better as the season progressed. So we're looking forward to it."
The Illini, though, aren't necessarily in a position to be taking any opponent — even FCS ones — lightly. Illinois won two of its first three games last season, but that was it. Beckman finished his first year in Champaign with a 2-10 record that included going winless in Big Ten play. One of those wins came against Charleston Southern, the FCS opponent on the schedule. So taking Southern Illinois seriously could lead to one of the team's only wins.
Beckman, who came to the Illini last season after coaching in the MAC, said he knows what it's like to be on the other side of a David vs. Goliath type matchup.
"I've been on that side at Toledo. I was on that side at Bowling Green when we went to Ohio State," he said. "Football is football and everybody goes out and plays to win, but you have that special feeling when you go out there and play your in-state school. We know that you've got to have your game ready. And your game's got to be ready on Saturday because we're going to get everything they've got. And same with us, we're going to give everything we've got."
Beckman stressed the importance of playing in-state opponents. But it was a game against in-state and in-conference opponent Northwestern that brought the Illini to their low point a season ago, and it's the most recent game they played, leaving a bad taste in the program's mouth. Illinois fell, 50-14, to the rival Wildcats, a loss that cemented their winless Big Ten season. Beckman believes his team has come a long way since then.
"What I've seen from this football team is a credit to what our players have done after the Northwestern game," he said. "And imagine that for the last nine months there's been a belief and a sense of urgency to play as a family, to play as a team.
"You want to see how far this team has come ... and that's all going to be shown when we come out on Saturday at 11 o'clock. But what our players have shown us as a coaching staff has been huge. From classroom to discipline to being involved in this community, it's leaps and bounds to what it was before. So now it's time to translate that on the football field."