- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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We've been taking a look at which Big Ten teams will be contenders and which will be pretenders in the 2013 season. Our series does not include Ohio State, Michigan or Nebraska -- three teams that, in our view, have earned the "contender" label entering the fall. For every other league team, we'll make a case for why they're contenders and pretenders and provide our final verdict.
The last installment in our series takes a look at Illinois.
Why they're a contender: We can't lie: this a tough case to make for a team that went 2-10 last year and has lost 14 straight Big Ten games over the past two seasons. But we'll try. It was a rough first year for Tim Beckman, but you often see teams make big strides in a new coach's second year. Toledo went 5-7 the first year under Beckman and then improved to 8-5 -- with a 7-1 mark in the MAC -- in Year 2. Beckman shook up his staff in the offseason, and new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit should greatly enhance what was the worst offense in the conference in 2012. Nathan Scheelhaase is one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the Big Ten, and players like Josh Ferguson, Donovonn Young and junior college transfer Martize Barr should help him make plays. The Illini lost some key players on defense but found a promising linebacker duo last year in freshmen Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina, and more junior college players like Eric Finney and Abe Cajuste add some much needed experience. People seem to have forgotten about Jonathan Brown, but he's still one of the best linebackers in the league when healthy. Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern all have to come to Champaign this year. One thing's for sure: the Illini won't have the pressure of preseason expectations.
Why they're a pretender: Did we mention that Illinois went 2-10 last year and has lost 14 straight conference games? Improvement should be expected, but to go from one of the worst major-conference teams to a Leaders Division contender in one year requires far too much of a logical leap. Besides, many of the best Illini players from 2012 -- Akeem Spence, Michael Buchanan, Hugh Thornton and Terry Hawthone -- were drafted last month. If Beckman couldn't win a conference game with four draft picks, this year could be scary. There are still major questions on the offensive and defensive lines, at the skill positions and in general overall depth. The Illini's crossover schedule from the Legends Division -- Nebraska, Michigan State and Northwestern -- is unforgiving, and a nonconference slate that includes Cincinnati and Washington could lead to a couple of early losses. Maybe an unexpected run like the 2001 Sugar Bowl season is in the cards, but it would be unexpected by everyone.
Verdict: Only the most optimistic Illini fan would say anything other than pretender.
1dSam Khan Jr.