1. So Illinois has had an interesting season, to say the least. How can you sum it up, and how have things been since Tim Beckman was fired?
There has been no shortage of football news and coverage over at TCR. Firing your coach one week before the start of the regular season is not an ideal thing to do (seriously, how many times has that happened... ever?), but I think it actually helped the players' mentalities. Beckman's job status was looming overhead for a few years and now everyone is just able to focus on actual football. No more talk of allegations or uncertain futures, just football. So if I had to sum this season up, it's kind of a freebie.
Bill Cubit (formerly the team's offensive coordinator) is now the interim head coach, and the Illini were certainly lucky to have someone with previous head coaching experience on the staff, but he is not the long-term option. Regardless of what happens this season, barring some kind of a miracle run to the Big Ten championship game and/or beyond, the team is searching for a new man to lead the program after 2015. I think the players have embraced the fact that they're just playing for nobody other than themselves right now.
2. Offensively, what do Wisconsin fans need to know about Illinois?
I would have to say overall the offense has been the most disappointing unit this year. Which is both surprising and unsurprising; Cubit was doing a damn good job as OC before getting promoted, so it's a little unnerving to see the drop in production so far, but at the same time you have to keep in mind that heading into this game, Illinois is missing three of its best playmakers who are out indefinitely due to injuries: WR Mike Dudek (was arguably the best and most versatile player on the team), RB Josh Ferguson (is "very questionable" moving forward after getting hurt in the Nebraska game) and WR Justin Hardee (would've most likely been the third-best wideout on the team). So the production is down a little bit, but that's to be expected with the number of injuries that have hit this side of the ball.
As for who IS out on the field, Wes Lunt is still a very productive quarterback. He's thrown nine touchdowns to only two interceptions and has a top 50 QBR rating. Wide receiver Geronimo Allison is the most explosive weapon Illinois currently has healthy; he's already hauled in over 600 receiving yards and has been named to the Biletnikoff Award watch list. The starting running back against the Badgers will be freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn. He's displayed flashes of brilliance in his new role in the backfield since Ferguson's injury, but his inexperience can also lead to some mistakes; he fumbled on a crucial drive in the last two minutes of the game against Iowa. This is an offense that, when clicking, can hang big numbers on a bad defense, but I would be pretty surprised if it topped 30 points this Saturday.
3. And what about defensively?
I'm biased, but I think the Illinois defense has to be one of the bigger surprises so far in the Big Ten, maybe even in all of college football. This is a unit that was consistently ranked near dead-last in the nation during Beckman's time here, and now it currently sits at 10th in the country in the latest S&P+ numbers. One of the major differences from a year ago is Illinois' newfound ability to create turnovers. Combined, the unit has already logged seven interceptions, including three from safety Taylor Barton. Illinois had seven all of last season. This unit gives me a lot more confidence heading into this matchup against Wisconsin than I otherwise would've had.
4. Are Illinois fans amped for this game? If not, what's the vibe?
Absolutely. Probably the most amped they're going to be for a home game this year (unless the team is still having a lot of success when Ohio State rolls into town). It's homecoming, so that's always a big draw for fans. Community support has been up and down through all of the chaos of the Beckman era, Beckman firing and Cubit interim era, but the crowds continue to grow as the team continues to be successful. Not too many Illini fans thought the team would be sitting at 4-2 right now following the abrupt dismissal of Beckman back in late August. Plus, the team is rolling out its annual special "gray ghost" uniforms to honor Red Grange, and that always gets people excited. Expect a very good turnout for Saturday afternoon's game.
5. Do you have a prediction?
This is a tough game to call, and I know it seems like that's a cliche thing to say, but it really is. Illinois started out the year with two straight wins, then got embarrassed on the road, then won two more games, then lost on the road again. Wisconsin lost to Alabama to start out the year (no shame in that), and took care of business against inferior competition, but Iowa and 'Bama are the only two quality teams they've faced this season, and they've lost to both of them. So it's tough to get a read on just how good either one of these teams truly is. That said, I think the continued absence of Josh Ferguson really hurts the Illinois offense, so I'll take the Badgers in a close 24-17 road victory.