By Joey Johnston
When the college football season began, practically no one expected the Illinois Fighting Illini and Mississippi State Bulldogs to be surrounded by beaches, palm trees, world-class attractions and the Tampa Bay area’s inviting destination for a New Year’s weekend bowl game.
Let’s roll the preseason predictions:
Illinois: Picked sixth among seven teams in the Big Ten Conference’s West Division.
Mississippi State: Picked sixth among seven teams in the Southeastern Conference’s West Division.
Needless to say, the coaches, players and fans from Illinois and Mississippi State aren’t just happy to be invited to the Jan. 2 ReliaQuest Bowl at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium. They are thrilled. And after remarkably productive seasons that have stamped the Illini (8-4) and Bulldogs (8-4) as surprise contenders, they are determined to erase the last question marks with a resounding exclamation point.
“For this season, it’s more of a leap start for the future,” said second-year Illinois coach Bret Bielema, whose team finished one victory away from winning its division and participating in the Big Ten Championship Game. “To be part of the ReliaQuest Bowl and the City of Tampa will be very big for us.
“People across the country who can’t go to Tampa can have a watch party and breathe this culture we’ve created. Specifically for us as a football team to play an SEC team on January 2, it’s a big deal and it has so many positives. We recruit heavily in Florida so it will be a big deal for those families to drive down and watch their sons play.”
Illinois, which has 18 players from Florida (tops in the Big Ten), was ranked in the Associated Press top 25 for five consecutive weeks and also appeared in the College Football Playoff rankings for the first time in program history. It’s the first Illinois bowl appearance since 2019 and only the third in the past decade.
The Illinois offense was paced by junior running back Chase Brown (Bradenton St. Stephen’s), the nation’s second-leading ground-gainer (1,643 yards), who needs just 58 yards to break the Illinois single-season rushing mark (1,697 by Mikel Leshoure in 2010). He rushed for 100 yards or more in 10 consecutive games before falling just short against Purdue (98 yards). Brown is a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, presented to the nation’s top running back.
Meanwhile, the Illini passing game has been bolstered by the addition of quarterback Tommy DeVito, a Syracuse transfer whose 70-percent completion rate is ranked third nationally.
During the regular season, Illinois (featuring seven starters from Florida) ranked in the top 10 nationally in 17 different defensive categories, including leading the nation in interceptions (22), ranking second in scoring defense (12.3 points allowed per game), and third in total defense (263.8 yards allowed per game). Illinois junior cornerback Devon Witherspoon is a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, presented to the nation’s top defensive back.
Mississippi State is no stranger to postseason appearances, having qualified for its 13th consecutive bowl game (one of only seven programs to play in bowl games each season since 2010). Included in that lineup was a 2019 appearance in Tampa (a 27-22 defeat against Iowa).
Under third-year Coach Mike Leach, the Bulldogs have developed a giant-killing reputation, having defeated seven AP-ranked opponents (all coming when the Bulldogs were unranked), the most recent of which occurred on Thanksgiving night, when Mississippi State upended the Ole Miss Rebels 24-22 in the Egg Bowl rivalry game.
“We are excited to play in the ReliaQuest Bowl against a quality, well-coached Illinois team,” Leach said. “We look forward to continuing competing, improving and building on the positive momentum surrounding our program. Our players and coaches are excited for the practices and preparation ahead.”
The Bulldogs finished the regular season as one of the SEC’s top passing offenses, while ranking in the league’s top five in 11 different categories, including interceptions and kickoff return average. The Bulldogs are top 10 nationally in kickoff return average, completion percentage and defensive touchdowns.
Mississippi State sophomore quarterback Will Rogers, who never met a pass pattern he didn’t like, is the SEC leader in passing yards (3,713), touchdown passes (34) and points responsible for (204). He has set the program record for touchdown passes (81) and passing yards (10,428), surpassing the numbers of Bulldog legend Dak Prescott, now with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. Rogers was named among the 11 finalists for the Manning Award.
One of Rogers’ favorite targets is senior wide receiver Austin Williams (32 catches), who was named the SEC Football Scholar-Athlete of the Year. Williams has a 4.0 cumulative grade-point average and is currently working on his third college degree.
Defensively, Mississippi State has a standout performer in sophomore cornerback Emmanuel Forbes, who was selected first-team All-SEC by Pro Football Focus. Forbes already has decided for forego his final season of eligibility for the NFL draft.