I don't know what to make out of Illinois this year.
The pieces are there for continued growth, especially on offense, but a dearth of playmakers in the passing game could offset any strides that the running game makes. At the same time Tim Beckman needs to revitalize a defense that returns a lot of experience, if not a lot of star power.
In the end there are few scenarios that would surprise me about Illinois at the end of the season. I could see them making it back to a bowl game if they take care of business at home, but I could also see them bottoming out and taking another step backward.
Personally I'm glad that the Badgers are playing Northwestern and Illinois back-to-back, if only because that makes it easier to compare the two teams' recruiting efforts in this series.
For the most part the two teams have established a similar turf: both teams emphasize their home state, albeit in different ways. By sheer numbers Illinois offered twice as many home grown prospects, but the Wildcats beat Illinois in their home-state success rate by more than 20 percent.
You can certainly attribute some of that to Northwestern being a little more selective about who they offer- when you're trying to rebuild a program like Tim Beckman is, sometime you have to cast a wider recruiting net.
You shouldn't be surprised by now that Illinois has invested a lot of time and effort in a few major states: Florida, Ohio, Texas, and California. Of the four the Illini have had the most success in California. A 10.9 percent success rate isn't phenomenal, but Beckman has ramped up his program's involvement in the Golden State, so more success could be on the way.
Their performance in their top two states (percentage-wise) is a little underwhelming, though. Only 28 Florida and Ohio natives have signed with Illinois over the last four years. In that time the Illini offered 334 prospects from those states, which works out to an 8.3 success rate.
Illinois found a bit of traction in Tim Beckman's second year as head coach: they doubled their previous year's win total and saw some major growth on offense under a new offensive coordinator.
But there was basically nowhere to go but up after their train wreck of a season in 2012, and some defensive regression offset some of the strides the Illini made with Bill Cubit running the show on offense.
Offensively the Illini are set to bring back six starters from a unit that finished No. 37 in Football Outsiders' S&P+ rankings, but I'm not sure whether we should expect to see more growth under Cubit or some natural regression to the mean. After all the Illini are losing a four-year starter at quarterback and four of their top five receiving threats, which could pose problems for Cubit's pass-first system.
But the potential is there for Illinois to finish as a stronger unit. Nathan Scheelhaase is gone, but former Oklahoma State quarterback Wes Lunt is poised to take over in his second year with Illinois. Lunt completed 61.8 percent of his passes for the Cowboys in 2012, so Illinois' passing game might not suffer very much if Cubit can identify some useful receivers.
The Illini also get running back Josh Ferguson back for another year, along with four of five starters on the offensive line. Ferguson finished last year with 811 rushing yards on 141 carries (5.5 yards per carry), and was also Illinois' second-leading receiver with 535 yards through the air. I'm excited to see what he can do with a larger workload, and if Illinois' passing game is struggling that's probably just what he'll see.
Defensively it's easier to see the evidence for a rebound, in large part because last year's unit was pretty bad. Illinois brings back eight starters from 2013, including the vast majority of their secondary. They're also working with some experienced players at linebacker, which could offset losing two edge rushers up front.
In the end I think it's better to work with experienced players than talented but raw new ones, so we'll see what Tim Beckman can do with this unit. He cut his teeth as a defensive coordinator before Illinois hired him, and having another low-ranked defense in year three could eat up a lot of the coaching capital Beckman bought for himself last year.
John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.