Speaking to hundreds of reporters and a national television audience at the Big Ten media day Monday, Illinois coach Tim Beckman looked poised and sounded confident as he presented reasons to believe in the Illini.
That's not an easy sell for a team that owns one Big Ten victory in his two seasons and has a 6-18 overall record.
"This program is heading in the direction that we are looking for," Beckman said at the annual conference kickoff. "We want to win more football games. There's no question about that. That's why we play the game."
The Illini return a wealth of starters and, Beckman said, 40 of 50 players from last season's two-deep chart.
Despite an experienced offensive line and a star running back in Josh Ferguson, the explosive offense that averaged 29.7 points per game lost quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and is eager to see a standout wide receiver emerge.
The defense needs more improvement after ranking second worst in the Big Ten by allowing 481.5 yards and 35.4 points a game last season.
"We're still a very young football team, but we're an experienced football team," Beckman said.
Illini fans were roasting Beckman after his first season in Champaign and he's considered to be sitting on a hot seat if the Illini don't make significant strides after finishing last season 4-8 overall and 1-7 in the conference.
That's a point of motivation for his players.
"The writing is on the wall," offensive tackle Simon Cvijanovic said. "It could be a completely new front office next year. We don't want that. We like Coach Beckman and the coaches that we have. Knowing that, it's not pressure to win, but because we work so hard and have been trying so hard there's an anger and a hunger to win."
The instruction from athletic director Mike Thomas, Beckman said, was "to get better."
"And we did," Beckman said, pointing to an improved team grade-point average and doubling the win total between Year 1 and 2. "It's not the numbers that we all want, but we did get better."
The objective for players is to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2012.
"We want to be Big Ten champs like everyone else," defensive tackle Austin Teitsma said. "We're not going to set a mediocre standard."
Beckman, the son of a high school football coach and a former Ohio State assistant, understands the pressures of his profession. Of course, winning would minimize those outside stressors.
"I've been around this profession my whole life," he said. "That's the life of a football coach. If you're not going to have that life, then you shouldn't be in this profession. So it's just a part of it. I'm a competitive winner. And I want to win because I want our players to win, not because of me."
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