This is the new normal in the college game. Instead of waiting to reach rock bottom, the next generation athletic director makes the move before the cupboard is totally bare.

CHAMPAIGN -- Take a look at Illinois football.


This is the new normal in the college game. Instead of waiting to reach rock bottom, the next generation athletic director makes the move before the cupboard is totally bare.


In this new age of instant news, conference TV channels and the need to fill the luxury suites, a college coach not only needs some momentum but a strong projection next season and some stars in the upcoming recruiting classes.


The message is clearer than ever before, said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, the former head coach at Indiana, LSU and Vanderbilt.


"Illinois is symbolic of the new age,'' DiNardo said. "It's what the BCS has done to coaches and what divisions have done to coaches.''


Rock bottom is a long climb up the ladder in the Big Ten Conference, where the Haves -- Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and Penn State -- stuff money in bank accounts from six-figure home attendance and wins by the double digits.


When Illinois hosts Western Michigan in the season opener Saturday, the incubation period is terribly short.


With back-to-back bowl victories for the first time in school history, Illinois has some momentum, as modest as it is. When athletic director Mike Thomas made the move, the idea was to move forward immediately before the recruiting struggles under former coach Ron Zook left the next coach empty handed.


This isn't rock bottom, so there are different pressures for Illinois coach Tim Beckman.


"The uniqueness is that they have been to two straight bowl games,'' DiNardo said. "They're not taking over a program that's down.''


Failing to reach the bowl season for a third straight year would be a step backward and bad sign in Beckman's first season.


Imagine if the defense slips in the transition under a different coordinator, or the offense struggles behind a first-year playcaller. That's not to mention any injuries on a team lacking depth.


"This is a lot of pressure, especially on the coordinators,'' DiNardo said. "You look at last year's defense. It was a pretty good. Early in the year, the offense was good.''


For a program lacking any real long-term success over the last two decades, cutting Ron Zook loose as coach was "the new kind of firing,'' DiNardo said.


"Over the last two years, this is definitely the most interesting coaching change in the Big Ten,'' DiNardo said.


Like anywhere else, Illinois coach Tim Beckman said, the honeymoon doesn't last long.


"You've seen how this thing works nowadays,'' Beckman said. "It's two years with a team that has won, two years with teams that haven't won.''


There's only one way to move up. Get some talent. Winning early helps a new coach sell hope.


"We want to build a program,'' Beckman said. "It's not just what's on the field It's what's going on in the community. It's the things they're hearing about Illini football.


"I hope that's why we have 19 commitments, and we haven't played a game yet.''


John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnSupinie.


 


Illinois schedule


Time and TV where available. Home games in CAPS.


Sept. 1 -- WESTERN MICHIGAN, 11 a.m., ESPNU


The Illini won 23-20 last year on a late fourth-quarter field goal.


Sept. 8 -- at Arizona State, 9:30 p.m., ESPN


Behind Cameron Marshall (1,050 yards, 18 TDs), the Sun Devils will run more.


Sept. 15 -- CHARLESTON SOUTHERN, 11 a.m., BTN


This game against an FCS cellar dwellar is closest thing to sure win.


Sept. 22 -- LOUISIANA TECH, 7 p.m., BTN


The defending WAC champs are also the league's preseason favorite.


Sept. 29 -- PENN STATE


Does anybody remember Illinois' recruiting raid in State College? PSU will.


Oct. 6 -- at Wisconsin, 2:30 p.m., ABC


It will be tough to stop the Badgers' pair of bruising lines


Oct. 13 -- at Michigan, 2:30 p.m., ABC


Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson is most explosive player in the nation.


Oct. 27 -- INDIANA, 11 a.m.


Indiana came within one touchdown of a Big Ten win just once last season.


Nov. 3 -- at Ohio State


Urban Meyer brings a spread to the Horseshoe, perhaps letting QB Braxton Miller open it up.


Nov. 10 -- MINNESOTA


If coach Jerry Kill stays healthy, the Gophers could be contending for a bowl berth.


Nov. 17 -- PURDUE


Loss to Boilermakers last season sent the Illini into a downward spiral.


Nov. 24 -- at Northwestern


Illini, Wildcats trying to build a rivalry that will get people's attention.


Dec. 1 -- Big Ten championship game, Indianapolis, 7 p.m., Fox


Wisconsin's 42-39 win over Michigan State was an instant classic and just what league needed.


 


5 on the rise


1. Jon Davis


He made two starts last season while catching 22 passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns. Not bad stats for a rookie in his first year on campus. But his workload will dramatically increase.


In an offense desperately searching for playmakers, the 6-foot-3, 240-pounder from Louisville will be found in more places than just his natural position at tight end. Expect him to slide into the slot, then shift into the backfield as a running back. Said tight ends coach Alex Golesh: "He spends half his time playing running back, half his time at wideout.''


2. Josh Ferguson


The motto is "five and six in the mix,'' so keep an eye on running backs Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson. After Young played his way into a big role last fall, Ferguson will follow him this season. Bulked up to 190 pounds to allow him to run inside, Ferguson nevertheless is a speedster who will likely work the edge. After missing all but three games last season with hamstring injuries, Ferguson caught the attention of a new coaching staff by rushing for 150 yards in the spring game.


3. Miles Osei


Lost in the shuffle under the previous coaching staff, Miles Osei has been uncovered and given a bigger role. The coaching staff said he might have the best arm on the team, so it won't be a surprise to see him take a few snaps at quarterback. But's he's more than a backup behind starter Nathan Scheelhaase. The left-handed Osei is also a capable option at running back and receiver. Thus, the Illini might try a little "trickeration.''


4. Tim Kynard


Sports run in his family. Kansas State's Erik Kynard, who earned the silver medal at the London Olympics, is a distant cousin. Tim Kynard is a run-stopper who could evolve into a three-down guy. With sackmaster Whitney Mercilus gone, the Illini need some opposite defensive end/outside linebacker Michael Buchanan to keep the blocking schemes honest. Kynard will split the position with fifth-year senior Justin Staples, who must sit the first game because of a DUI arrest.


5. Ashante Williams


Playing the hybrid safety-linebacker spot known as the Star in coach Tim Beckman's defense, Williams overcame disciplinary issues under former coach Ron Zook and impressed Beckman during the preseason training camp. The Illini are short-handed at safety because of injury and inexperience, so any help Williams can give would be a great benefit.


 


The Illini will go bowling if:


They post no worse than 3-1 in the non-conference season. Illinois needs momentum and little pressure heading into the Big Ten season, where the Illini host Penn State in the opener. After the aggressive play the Illini took in recruiting Penn State players following the Paterno/Sandusky scandal, this will be a grudge match the Illini don't want to lose. Illinois plays at Wisconsin and Michigan the following two weekends.


So if the Illini want to create some elbow room, they need a hot start to the season. The season's first month is key.


 


The Illini go out with a whimper if:


Defensive coordinator Tim Banks can't duplicate the performance by last season's Illini. He said this defense will be judged by what they do on the field. So will Banks. He replaced a wildly popular coordinator in Vic Koenning, who overhauled the Illini defense from No. 91 in 2009 in the season before he arrived to No. 7 last season.


Banks has a tough act to follow, but he's got four mainstays -- defensive end/linebacker Michael Buchanan, defensive tackle Akeem Spence, linebacker Jonathan Brown and cornerback Terry Hawthorne. The goal is to improve the takeaways. The Illini ranked 59th in turnovers gained last season with 22.