Bowl games are always a fascinating moment of transition for college football teams. Graduating players will get one last chance to make an impression on NFL scouts, and some younger players get their first chance to step up and start in a big game in place of players who either opt-out or entered the portal.
Illinois is no different here. Some of the most critical parts of the team will stay the same as they have been all year. Tommy DeVito will still be under center, both the offensive and defensive lines will look the same as they did against the Northwestern Wildcats in November, and the wide receiver corps will still highlight Pat Bryant, Isaiah Williams and Casey Washington.
But three key players have chosen to opt out of the bowl game, and it will be incumbent on younger players to take their places and start to establish themselves for next season.
At running back, the Illini will undoubtedly look at Reggie Love to replace Chase Brown in the lead back role.
Love has been Chase Brown’s change of pace back all season, and so far has 276 rushing yards on 59 carries. The St. Louis native also carried much of the load in the final game of the regular season, rushing for 85 yards on 11 carries. It’s a safe bet he’ll get a similar workload against the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Bret Bielema has also indicated that Josh McCray will be able to get some carries in the ReliaQuest Bowl as well, and I expect him to be the third-down/short yardage back in as many situations as his health allows.
Josh McCray Touchdown pic.twitter.com/VhmDnFGDnW— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) November 27, 2021
True freshman Aidan Laughery is also nursing some injuries, but I suspect we’ll see him in the bowl game if possible, too.
Replacing Sydney Brown and Devon Witherspoon in the defensive backfield will be much tougher, and the work likely won’t be shouldered by any two individual players alone. At cornerback, freshmen Tyler Strain and Xavier Scott will likely play in place of Witherspoon.
Strain redshirted last year and appeared in 11 games in 2022, but mostly recorded stats in the last two games of the season. His interception against the Purdue Boilermakers has been his most noteworthy contribution so far.
Xavier Scott has played in 10 games so far this year, thus burning his redshirt months ago. He has had 9 tackles and one forced fumble on the season.
One safety spot will be held down by sixth-year senior Kendall Smith, as it has been all season. But the other spot, vacated by Sydney Brown as he prepares for the NFL Draft, will likely fall to true freshman Matthew Bailey. A native of Moline, Bailey became the first true freshman to return a fumble for a touchdown and record an interception in the same game since 2006. He then also made the interception that sealed the win over the Iowa Hawkeyes earlier this year.
It’s also possible that redshirt freshman Kionte Curry could get some reps at safety in his return to his home state. Curry has played in 6 games this season and recorded 3 total tackles.
Although I’d certainly like to see the Illini get their first 9-win season since 2007, I’m much more interested in seeing what Illinois can put on film for next season. Since Illinois’ early 2023 opponents will be heavily scouting the film of this game, it would be beneficial for Bret Bielema to show a wide variety of plays and personnel packages, including some red herrings, that early opponents will need to rep against in practice.
Ultimately, this bowl game is a reward for an outstanding season of Illini football. Illinois was nationally relevant all season and ranked for a significant portion of it. The future looks exceptionally bright under Bielema’s leadership, and I’m glad that the players have this opportunity to enjoy themselves.