CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — After an exciting 8-4 season, the Illini have qualified for their best bowl in over a decade. To make matters that much sweeter, they will be leaving the cold of Champaign for a much warmer climate.
On Bowl Selection Sunday, the committee announced that Illinois will head to Tampa, Florida, to face Mississippi State in the ReliaQuest Bowl (formerly Outback Bowl).
A few hours after the announcement, athletic director Josh Whitman, head coach Bret Bielema and a few players held a press conference to discuss what this bowl game means for the football program moving forward.
What Could’ve Been
In Bielema’s second year, the Illini made tremendous strides, and it showed. The historic season set accolade after accolade, many not seen in decades.
The team had 19 All-Big Ten honorees, the most in program history. Eight wins are the most in a season since 2007. Victories over Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota marked the first time beating all three teams in the same season since 1983.
“[I] couldn’t be prouder of our team, our coaches, or our players,” Whitman said.
The bowl selection also brings more accolades for this program. The ReliaQuest Bowl is the best bowl appearance since the Rose Bowl in 2008. The Tampa location gives Illinois its first Florida-based bowl game since 1999 — back when Whitman played for the team.
With all this history being made, the Illini were a few key plays away from making even more. Each of the four losses were by 8 points or fewer, and Bielema can’t help but wonder what could’ve been.
“We’re four games short of our dream,” Bielema said. “We want to be in the College Football Playoff.”
Illinois proved it could compete with one of the teams in the CFP, losing to Michigan in the final seconds. The two-point loss remains the Wolverine’s closest win, with their next closest being at 21.
Games like this proved Illinois can play on an elite level, but other losses against Indiana and Michigan State — neither of whom are bowl eligible — left everyone wanting more.
“It shows where we’re at,” Bielema said. “But we can’t let those opportunities get past us.”
Regardless of the what-ifs, this season has been one of the greatest in decades. The immediate impact that Bielema has made on this program is nothing short of remarkable, and it shows the potential of what’s to come.
“I’m proud of us,” Whitman said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do.”
When you stop to think about what conference has dominated college football, there’s no question. It’s the SEC.
The Illini have a history against SEC teams in bowl games, and it’s not a good one. In three games against the SEC, Illinois is winless. This stat was something that Bielema harped on, emphasizing what a win against this conference would mean for this program.
“That’s the whole mantra we’ve been using all year, to do something that’s never been done before,” Bielema said. “It’s an opportunity that lies out there.”
Bielema’s players will head into Tampa with that same level of determination.
“That’s something that we have to hold an edge to,” said star safety Sydney Brown. “It’s something we’ll hold to and hopefully overcome.”
Illinois will face a Mississippi State team that finished third in its division behind the likes of Alabama and LSU. Following a big win over ranked rival Ole Miss in the final game of the season, the Bulldogs enter postseason play ranked No. 24 in the CFP rankings.
The team is led by star QB Will Rogers. In 12 games this season, the junior ranks in the top 10 in the country in both passing yards (3,713) and touchdowns (34). He also ranks slightly behind the efficient Tommy DeVito in completion percentage (68.2%).
Bielema praised the “talented quarterback”, but he alluded to another area of the Bulldogs that shouldn’t be underestimated either.
“Their defense doesn’t get enough recognition,” Bielema said.
Mississippi State will be a big challenge, and the Illini will undoubtedly benefit if the fanbase travels well. As we know, the ability of the basketball fans to travel was shown in Vegas, but can the crowd travel with the same volumes to the school’s biggest football game in over a decade?
“Our fans have demonstrated the passion and enthusiasm for what’s happening with this athletics program right now,” Whitman said. “(I’m) really excited about where we’re headed.”
The bowl game is scheduled for Jan. 2. Kickoff is set for 11 a.m. CT on ESPN2.