It’s bowl season!
We’re officially one week away from watching the Illini take the field in Tampa at the ReliaQuest Bowl. They’ll be matching up against CFP No. 22 Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4 SEC), a team playing with heavy hearts — RIP Coach Leach.
More to come on the Bulldogs from our wonderful TCR writers later this week.
For the Illini, three players have already opted out of the game to prepare for the NFL Draft — Devon Witherspoon, Sydney Brown, and Chase Brown — so unfortunately, we won’t get to see those guys suit up for a final time in orange and blue.
Nonetheless, this is an exciting opportunity for Illinois to both stack a ninth win onto its breakthrough season and get a glimpse into what’s to come for this program in 2023 and beyond.
Here are four storylines I’ll be following on January 2.
First Look at Aaron Henry’s Defense
Ryan Walters has taken the helm in West Lafayette and Bret Bielema has turned to former defensive backs coach Aaron Henry as the program’s next defensive coordinator.
Bielema confirmed last week that Henry will call the defense in Tampa, so we’ll get our first look at what the Illini defense looks like under new leadership.
Obviously, we won’t get the full picture against Mississippi State, with nearly the entire starting secondary choosing to sit.
Henry also has yet to add his own wrinkles, tailor his scheme to future personnel, and fully impose his voice on the unit, all of which will be done during the offseason.
Still, it’ll be valuable experience for the first-time coordinator and will allow Illini fans to see for themselves what the post-Walters era in Champaign could look like going forward.
Replicating one of the top scoring defenses in all of college football is a tall order, but Bielema has groomed Henry dating back to his days at Wisconsin and has shown full trust in him to continue elevating the program. He’ll get to use the Reliaquest Bowl as a trial run, of sorts.
Young DBs get a chance to shine
With Witherspoon and Brown choosing to forgo the bowl game, Quan Martin potentially to follow, and Taz Nicholson out for the season with a wrist injury, the Illini’s young defensive backs will be thrust into the spotlight in Tampa.
And it won’t be an easy offense to go up against.
The late Mike Leach’s patented Air Raid offense will be on full display for the Bulldogs, led by junior quarterback Will Rogers who threw for 3,713 yards and 36 touchdowns in 2022. Mississippi State ranked 9th nationally in passing offense.
Redshirt freshman Tyler Strain and true freshman Xavier Scott will likely see lots of snaps for the Illini at cornerback. They’re two guys who figure to be in the mix at the position in 2023.
True freshman Matthew Bailey, the heir apparent to Sydney Brown at safety — “Syd 2.0” as some in the program called him this summer — should also get the start in Tampa.
Kionte Curry, Tyson Rooks, and Elijah McCantos are some young options that could also see the field some.
With a good performance, these young Illini defensive backs will gain a ton of confidence heading into the offseason as they get set to fill the void of four All-Big Ten selections and two All-Americans in the secondary. Even with some struggles, the reps gained against a high-level opponent like this one will go a long way in their development moving forward.
2023 RB Room Preview?
While we won’t get to see Chase Brown break the Illinois single season rushing record in Tampa, we will get a glimpse at the guys slated to fill his shoes in 2023.
Assuming Josh McCray is healthy and ready to go after a month off, he and Reggie Love should see the lion’s share of work in the backfield, with Chase Hayden and maybe even true freshman Jordan Anderson factoring in as well.
Chase Brown’s All-American campaign was a huge reason for Illinois’ resurgence in 2022. A strong rushing attack will be vital for the Illini if they want to stay near the top of the conference in the future.
Josh McCray proved more than capable as a true freshman (549 yards, 2 TD) of being a high level Big Ten running back and now, after a season full of injuries and setbacks, should get a chance to showcase himself once again.
Mississippi State’s run defense was middle-of-the-pack nationally, allowing 143.6 rushing yards per game. Even without Brown, Barry Lunney and the Illini offense should be able to establish the ground game early and hopefully get McCray, Love, and co. going with some positive momentum heading into 2023.
Big Ten-SEC Battle in the Trenches
The Reliaquest Bowl presents a rare chance to watch Illinois take on an SEC opponent, something they’ve only done in postseason play three times in program history.
Unfortunately, they’re 0-3 in those games, something Bret Bielema emphasized in his first presser following the bowl announcement.
Mississippi State will challenge the Illini up front, and, in my mind, this game will be won in the trenches. Every starter on both the Illinois offensive and defensive lines is slated to suit up in Tampa and will have one more chance to build on an excellent season on both lines. This figures to be their biggest advantage in this matchup and one they must exploit.
Can the Illinois offensive line open enough running lanes and protect Tommy DeVito enough for the Illini to keep up with the Bulldogs? Can Illinois’ defensive front shut down the run and get pressure on Will Rogers to make things easier for their inexperienced secondary?
Bret Bielema is very aware of what it takes to knock off an SEC team from his time at Arkansas. He’ll undoubtedly take a lot of pride in being the more physical team on Jan. 2.