By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Northern Illinois is busy pumping up its star QB as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Northwestern is basking in the glow of a No. 22 ranking in the USA Today preseason coaches poll. And over in South Bend, Notre Dame is even higher up the college football ladder, peering down from a lofty No. 11 perch.
Well … it starts training camp next week, too.
You'd barely know it, however, based on the level of excitement – or dearth of it, rather – that's emanating out of Champaign. Case in point: So slim are the compelling storylines leading up to Tim Beckman's second season as head coach of the Fighting Illini that on Friday, Champaign News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate wrote a piece entitled, "For starters, here's my hoops lineup."
Basketball season doesn't start until November.
Elsewhere, Decatur Herald-Review columnist Mark Tupper wrote earlier this week that his "Goal is to be fair on the Illini football program." (Not exactly billboard material.) And the football season appears so bleak that it even scared veteran Illini scribe Herb Gould of the Chicago Sun-Times into retirement.
In all honesty, though, it's just tough to get jazzed about Tim Beckman's encore when his opening performance hit all the wrong notes during a 2-10 campaign that included nine straight losses to close out the season. Illinois hasn't won a football game at all since Sept. 15, 2012, when it skunked hapless FCS opponent Charleston Southern 44-0 at Memorial Stadium. Beyond that, the Illini haven't won a game against a Big Ten foe since routing Indiana 41-20 on Oct. 8, 2011, in Bloomington.
And the Hoosiers barely count as a Big Ten foe.
As a refresher in case you've forgotten (or blocked it out), the Illinois football team is currently caught up in a 14-game conference losing streak, and during the nine-game skid to end last season, the team was beaten by an average score of 37-13.
In fact, the closest the Illini came to a victory during that stretch was when they lost by 13 points to Purdue.
So, clearly, to say that Beckman and his staff have their work cut out for them during training camp this month is an understatement. Illini fans, meanwhile, have quite the tall task of their own in finding good reasons to watch the team this season.
With that in mind on Friday, I tossed out a serious question to Illini fans via Twitter and Facebook, asking: "What are you most looking forward to seeing during the coming football season?"
The first response on Twitter was: "Tim getting canned," while the first response on Facebook was: "The new scoreboard."
My mother, meanwhile, simply said: "The band."
I believe all of them were indeed serious.
Some Illinois supporters, however, did generate more optimism about what they hoped to witness in 2013. On Twitter, @Frustrated_Fan wrote he looks forward to: "Ending our conference losing streak. It's going to happen this year. Really." On Facebook, Chris Patton mentioned, "The influence of (new offensive coordinator) Bill Cubit and hoping for enough success so that he is still around to coach (Oklahoma State QB transfer Wes) Lunt and the JUCO wide receivers in 2014."
Also on Twitter, @brianfuss2 wrote that he wants to see, "A notion that the program is turning around. Baby steps of progress, even if record doesn't reflect it." Meanwhile, @jcampbe17 wrote that he's "Hearing good things about the new offense. Hoping we can score more than once per game this year."
Maybe even once a half!
In a level-headed response, @Einsane said he's most looking forward to "Gauging improvement and testing whether Beckman can learn from his mistakes," which I anticipate will be the main storyline of the season.
Many other fans, however, have already bailed on any hope for 2013 saying they're most eagerly awaiting, "The new Chief mural at Kam's," "tailgating," "smaller crowds at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Savoy," and "basketball season."
There's at least one hardy fan, however, who's holding out the ultimate hope for the coming season with @TaylorCDJR asking, "is a winning record too much to ask for? Serious question."
Serious answer: Yeah, it is.
Hope for three wins instead.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago's North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.
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