Hello, Illinois Fighting Illini fans!
After Illinois stunned the Wisconsin Badgers on Homecoming weekend on James McCourt's game winning field goal, Illinois has been on a roll, defeating Purdue and Rutgers. The Illini now stand at 5-4 and 3-3 in the Big Ten. If Illinois beat 1-7 Northwestern, Illinois will qualify for their first bowl game since after the 2014 season. Illinois also has road games at the Michigan State Spartans and Iowa Hawkeyes but appear to be underdogs to both teams. While The Champaign Room writer Stephen Cohn has eyes on winning the Big Ten West, let's examine all of the possibilities to where the Illini can go bowling (assuming they will at all).
First, here are the bowls that the Big Ten has agreements with as well as their determination procedures.
Illinois goes 0-3:
They don't go to a bowl, Lovie Smith deserves to and probably gets fired and all of the excitement this season goes down the drain.
Illinois goes 1-2:
Certainly would be a disappointment after the current state but it looks like the most likely outcome, where Illinois beats Northwestern and loses at Michigan State and Iowa. Illinois will likely finish with the 9th best Big Ten record behind the Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa, and Michigan State. Assuming the Big Ten champion makes it to the College Football Playoff, the next best team goes to the Rose Bowl, and the 3rd through 8th teams go to the "top tier" bowls (Citrus Bowl in Orlando or Orange Bowl in Miami, Outback Bowl in Tampa, Holiday Bowl in San Diego) and the "middle tier" bowls (Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Redbox Bowl in Santa Clara, California, and Pinstripe Bowl in New York), that would leave Illinois with one of the two "lower tier" bowls, either the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit or Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas. ESPN describes the various Big Ten bowl tiers. The procedures list the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl in Dallas but the Dallas and Fort Worth bowls switch off and it's Fort Worth's turn to host the Big Ten. The last bowl Illinois went to was in Dallas (formerly the "Heart of Dallas" Bowl). If I had my choice of the two, I'd certainly prefer Fort Worth (who'd want to go to Detroit?) but the Big Ten likely would choose which bowl Illinois would go to. The Illini were the only Big Ten team ever to play in Dallas and no Big Ten team has ever played in Fort Worth. Meanwhile, a Big Ten team has played in Detroit four of the last five seasons so it looks like the Big Ten will favor Detroit over Fort Worth so it sucks for Illinois.
Illinois goes 2-1:
If the win is at Michigan State, they will likely jump the Spartans in the Big Ten pecking order, putting them in live for Jacksonville (it will be the Gator and not the Music City since the Music City Bowl has hosted three Big Ten teams since the 2014-15 season and the Gator only two), Santa Clara/San Francisco, or New York. The Gator Bowl can't have the same Big Ten team twice in the same contract. That would rule out Iowa and Penn State (I'm pretty sure they will be in a better bowl). The Redbox Bowl "will feature at least five teams in six years". In the last five years, they've had five different teams so they can technically take anyone. The Pinstripe Bowl would like eight different teams in eight years. They've had Indiana and Iowa in the current contract so if both of those teams fall into the "middle tier" they may stick Illinois with the Pinstripe Bowl since they've never been there. If Indiana upsets either Penn State or Michigan (or both), they will definitely be more attractive to the Gator and Redbox than Illinois (they might even sneak into the Outback or Holiday). Maybe Illinois can convince the Redbox Bowl that a ton of Illinois alumni live in Silicon Valley as opposed to Iowa (if it weren't for Nebraska, Iowa would be the idiots of the Big Ten). But Indiana and Iowa likely will finish 8-4 and I'm guessing they will have priority to Jacksonville and Santa Clara.
If they beat Iowa but lose to Michigan State, Illinois will be 7-5 but so will Michigan State and the Spartans will have beaten Illinois head to head and likely travel better/be more attractive to ESPN. If Iowa loses to both Wisconsin and Minnesota, they'll be 7-5 and Illinois will have the head to head so they will be in the same situation as above. If Iowa beats one of them, they're 8-4 and ahead of Illinois, meaning Illinois will likely go to Detroit.
Illinois goes 3-0:
I'll ignore the possibility of them winning the Big Ten West. I'll have them at 8-4 but either Wisconsin or Minnesota wins the Big Ten West. I'd have Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, and Minnesota ahead of Illinois in the Big Ten pecking order. If Wisconsin loses to both Iowa and Minnesota, they will also be 8-4 and Illinois will have the head to head. If Iowa beats Wisconsin and loses to Illinois and Minnesota, they'll be 8-4 and behind Illinois as well. Indiana, if they lose to both Penn State and Michigan, will also be 8-4. So best case scenario is Indiana vs. Illinois for the Holiday Bowl with the other team likely getting priority for the Gator/Redbox bowls. If Wisconsin beats Iowa, then Illinois likely goes to the Gator or Redbox unless the Pinstripe Bowl really wants a new team and Illinois will get stuck there.
It doesn't look like Illinois will be heading anywhere warm this December/January. But I guess it's better than not playing in a bowl at all.