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Can Illinois really fire Tim Beckman now?

So let’s ask the question. Can Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas make a salable case for firing Tim Beckman right now even if he wants to?

After a 47-33 victory at Northwestern on Saturday that the Illini absolutely had to have, Beckman’s team is 6-6 overall (3-5 in Big Ten play) and bowl-bound. And the Illini have momentum, having won three of four down the stretch, knocking off Minnesota, Penn State and now their No. 1 rival.

Bonus: Illinois just kept Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats from reaching a bowl.

When has Beckman ever looked this good? Answer: In three years at Illinois, he hasn’t. Not even close. Not even within the same galaxy.

Does Illinois football have actual positive momentum? Sure, it does. The Illini starting doing things in November that they hadn’t done previously. Things like playing defense. And running the football. And winning the turnover battle.

Improvement is all Thomas ever said he wanted to see.

Of course, attendance at Memorial Stadium in Champaign has been so bad, it’s impossible not to see it in large part as a reflection of the fan base’s dissatisfaction with the direction of the program under Beckman. And Beckman’s three-year record of 12-24 — including 4-20 in the Big Ten — still is terrible.

There also are public-relations concerns with Beckman, whose record in press conferences is even worse than his record on the field.

But the Illini are in a bowl. They have a shot at seven victories. The program is slowly coming around on the field, and the off-the-field stuff — classroom; general behavior — has been very positive.

So what does Mike Thomas do?

A couple of weeks ago, the answer seemed obvious. Inevitable. More than justified.

It simply isn’t anymore.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg