No. 22 Mississippi State and Illinois get 2023 started for college football fans Monday in Tampa, Florida, when they meet in the ReliaQuest Bowl. Or, as you may call it, The Bowl Formerly Known As Outback. Sadly, while bowls are meant to be a celebration of the season's accomplishments, there's a somber tone surrounding this game as it will be the first game Mississippi State plays since the tragic and unexpected death of coach Mike Leach. Leach died at the age of 61 on Dec. 12, less than three weeks after the Bulldogs finished the regular season with a 24-22 win over rival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl.
There was some consideration of canceling the game, but the team decided playing it would be what Coach Leach wanted. After all, the game is being played in a stadium with a pirate ship.
Zach Arnett will be at the helm after being named as Leach's replacement. He had been the team's defensive coordinator since the 2020 season. The Bulldogs are facing an Illinois team led by second-year coach Bret Bielema, who led the Illini to their best regular-season record since the 2007 season that saw the team reach the Rose Bowl. Illinois began the year 7-1, reaching No. 14 in the AP Top 25, but lost three of their last four games. However, they almost changed the course of the College Football Playoff by nearly beating Michigan on the road before the Wolverines used a last-second field goal to escape with a 19-17 win.
How to watch ReliaQuest Bowl live
Date: Monday, Jan. 2 | Time: 12 p.m. ET
Location: Raymond James Stadium -- Tampa, Florida
TV: ESPN2 | Live stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
Illinois vs. Mississippi State: Need to know
Will Rogers became Mississippi State's all-time leading passer: Rogers has been the most prolific passer in the SEC this season. He leads the league with 3,713 yards passing, 34 touchdowns and seven games of at least 300 yards passing. He also became the Bulldogs' all-time leading passer this season, surpassing the mark of 9,376 yards previously set by Dak Prescott. Rogers enters the final game of the season with 10,428 yards passing as a Bulldog.
Illinois' first bowl appearance since 2019: The Illini have had an impressive turnaround under Bielema. The program only went to one bowl game in five seasons under Lovie Smith, losing the 2019 Redbox Bowl to Cal. That appearance had been the team's first trip to a bowl game since the 2014 Heart of Dallas Bowl, which was the only bowl game the team had been to in three seasons under Tim Beckman. This isn't a team that goes to bowls often! In fact, if they return to a bowl next season, it'll be the first time Illinois has gone to bowls in consecutive seasons since 2010-11. The 2011 Fight Hunger Bowl win over UCLA is also the last time Illinois won a bowl game.
Air Raid vs one of the best passing defenses in the country: Styles make fights, and this game provides a terrific clash of styles. No team in the country threw the ball more often than Mississippi State, which averaged 49.1 pass attempts per game. That Air Raid offense Mike Leach made famous and helped change the sport with (both at the college and NFL level) will be tested in this one. The Illinois defense ranks first nationally in defensive pass efficiency at 89.77. The second-best team in the country was Penn State at 104.01. Illinois intercepted nearly three times as many passes (22) as it allowed touchdowns (8).
ReliaQuest Bowl prediction, picks
Opt-outs always play a key role in bowls, and there are significant ones in this game. Rara Thomas led Mississippi State with 626 yards receiving this season and caught seven touchdowns, but he's transferred to Georgia. Meanwhile, Illinois will be without leading rusher and Doak Walker Award finalist Chase Brown, as well as two pivotal members of its secondary in Devon Witherspoon and Sydney Brown. Also, Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters left to take the head coach job at Purdue. I don't have a great read on who wins this game, but the one constant of Illinois games all season has been low scores. Let's stick with that. Prediction: Under 46
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