By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Football Writer/Analyst
December 4, 2022
(Cover photo courtesy Ron Johnson/USA Today Sports)
For just the second time in school history, Illinois is headed toward the Gulf Coast of Florida for its bowl game.
The Illini were selected to the Reliaquest Bowl for an 11 am CST kickoff on January 2 against Mississippi State.
Illinois’ only other experience with this bowl game was a 30-0 loss to then #14 Clemson in the 1991 Hall of Fame Bowl in the last game that John Mackovic would ever coach the Illini program. From 1996-2022, the bowl game was sponsored by Outback Steakhouse and from 1986-1995, it was referred to as the Hall of Fame Bowl.
Action Network college football analyst Brett McMurphy was the first to report this news.
The bowl selection for Illinois is the first in program history since Lovie Smith took the 2019 Illini to the Redbox Bowl in San Francisco, CA where they lost 35-20 to California. The last time the Illini won a bowl game was 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl when interim head coach Vic Koenning led the Illini to a 20-14 victory over UCLA on December 31, 2011.
The last time Illinois played in a bowl game in the state of Florida was the Illini’s 63-21 victory over Virginia in the 1999 MicronPC.com bowl in Miami Gardens where Kurt Kittner was the most valuable player after finishing with four touchdowns including a rushing, passing, and receiving score. Illinois has a history of playing in Raymond James Stadium – the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the National Football League. In 2017, Illinois lost 47-23 to then #22 South Florida on ESPN in the 15th game of the Lovie Smith era.
Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4 in the Southeastern Conference) won three of its four games to get to its first New Year’s Day bowl game since 2018 when Joe Moorehead’s Bulldogs lost to Iowa 27-22 in the Outback Bowl.
The Bulldogs are led by third-year head coach Mike Leach and his Air Raid passing attack that is 11th among 131 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in passing yards per game. The two school have met twice in history but have not shared a football field since 1980 when MSU left Champaign with a 28-21 win.
Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers leads the SEC in passing yards per game (309.4 yards per game) and ended the 2022 regular season with 34 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
Illinois coaching staff will likely be intact, but it is still unclear whether the Illini roster will have all of its players from the 41-3 win in the regular season finale at Northwestern. Junior cornerback Devon Witherspoon, who is a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award and has seen his draft profile gain national traction over the last few months, was non-committal on November 26 after the win in Evanston to playing in whatever bowl game Illinois was selected.
The bowl matchup is likely to feature two of the nation’s best young defensive coordinators on opposite sidelines as Illinois assistant coach Ryan Walters is a finalist for the 2022 Broyles Award and Mississippi State’s 36-year-old defensive coordinator Zach Arnett interviewed with Power Five Conference programs such as Oregon, LSU, and Texas for their defensive coordinator vacancies, before ultimately deciding to stay on Leach’s staff at Mississippi State for the 2022 season.
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