Well the nearly-unthinkable has happened. Despite it being generally anticipated that Tim Beckman would not be returning as Illinois head coach in 2015 after the Purdue loss, the team managed to win three out of their last five games to receive a bowl bid. And then, after all they went through to finally make it to six wins, it was rumored that their postseason berth may be in jeopardy. Then, inexplicably, the College Football Playoff rankings shifted the top eight teams around which allowed each eligible Big Ten team to go to a bowl game. Yes, Tim Beckman's team was going bowling.
It is undeniable that the Illini have gone on a miraculous and arduous journey to finally reach Texas for the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl, but the job is not finished yet. They've had nearly a month to prepare for the season's finale against a formidable 8-5 Louisiana Tech team. The Bulldogs boast wins over Rice and Western Kentucky (two eight-win teams) and lost to then-undefeated Marshall by only three points. They also rank 13th in the country in points per game and 42nd in the country in points-allowed per game. It won't be easy for the Illini, but the TCR staff seems to think the boys in orange and blue will be bringing a trophy back home with them to Champaign. They weigh in on what they think will happen below.
Jim Vainisi --- Louisiana Tech 31, Illinois 24
Mark Primiano --- Illinois 28, Louisiana Tech 21
The Bulldogs had a better season, but they are without six key players due to academic suspensions. They also have a similar profile to Penn State and Northwestern (102nd in oFEI, 28th in dFEI). If the Illini can stick to the gameplan that won their final two regular season games, they should walk away with a win.
Colin Whitchurch --- Louisiana Tech 48, Illinois 38
Louisiana Tech has an opportunistic defense that forced more turnovers than any team in the country, as well as a high-scoring offense that shouldn't have any trouble scoring at will. This is a terrible matchup for the Illini.
Bryce Smith --- Illinois 47, Louisiana Tech 27
It seems we always play well in the bowl games. The seniors aren't going to let us lose this one. The Illini will win by twenty.
Brad Repplinger --- Twas the Day After Christmas (A Prediction):
T'was the day after Christmas, in a bowl found in Dallas,
Illini fans were cheering, their hands clapped and callous.
For their team took the field, a program they support,
From the band to the players, everyone tall and short.
Our guys have won a hat, and five other games they'd massed,
It was now time to win a bowl game, and erase an experience from the past.
This team called "the Bulldogs" stand in their way,
And we won't repeat 2012, no way José!
Coming into this game, we've won two in a row,
And we know we can win, and put on a show.
O'Toole and Mike Dudek will team up and lead,
While the defense will hold strong, a very tough deed.
Though it's been an up and down, and emotional year,
We'll find a way to win this one, and we'll celebrate with
beer a BEvERage of your choice.
So I predict a victory, 38-34,
Time to find some orange Kool-Aid...I think I might need some more!
Trevor Vallese --- Illinois 35, Louisiana Tech 31
I don't think this is the best matchup for the Illini; the Bulldogs' offense ranks 30 spots ahead of theirs, and the defensive-rankings margin is even worse. ESPN advanced stats gives the Illini a 31% chance to win but my heart just can't predict a loss. Reilly O'Toole will lead the seniors on a game-winning drive with under two minutes to go and the Illini will be victorious in the Heart of Dallas bowl. Happy holidays, everybody.
Bonus Prediction: Mike Dudek will shine when the lights (and his future) are the brightest and will haul in three touchdowns to help lead the Illini to victory.
Matt Silich's prediction can be found in his excellent bowl game preview post. Be sure to drop by below to tell us what you think is going to happen against Louisiana Tech!