The Reliaquest Bowl seems to be a game that is befuddling the bookmakers. It’s basically a pick-em, as we’ve seen the spread shift here and there a bit since the game was announced on December 4.
According to the bookies, #22 Mississippi State Bulldogs are currently favored by one over the Illinois Fighting Illini, so this is truly anybody’s ballgame. Not only should be it tightly contested, but the engaging clash of styles (as these two teams approach the game very differently) should make it an entertaining one to watch.
Reliaquest Bowl Illinois vs #22 Mississippi St. FYIs
Kickoff: Jan. 2, noon ET, ESPN2
Early Game Preview/Matchup Analysis: go here
List, analysis of opt-outs: go here
Our Reliaquest Bowl Idea for the Stadium Pirate Ship: go here
Odds: MSU -1, -118 Money Line, O/U 45.5, Illini +1, -110 ML
Mississippi State Bulldogs Preview
First off, Rest in Peace Mike Leach. He was taken from us far too soon, and he changed the game of college football for the better.
Shockingly, this isn’t the first time the head coach of an Illini opponent in a bowl game passed away from a heart attack, so close to/after the game. In his final game, Bear Bryant beat the Illini 21–15 victory in the 1982 Liberty Bowl.
Afterward, he was asked by a reporter what he’ll do in retirement, and he answered: “Probably croak in a week.”
Four weeks and one day after he said that he died from a massive heart attack.
Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett was promoted to MSU head coach in the interim, and then later he had the interim title removed. It is now his program, starting with this game.
At the coaches press conference earlier today, Arnett was asked about the guys, with NFL Draft chops, who are staying one more game and playing the Reliaquest Bowl, and doing it for Mike Leach.
“I just think it speaks to the guys we got in our program, guys who like playing football, guys who want to play for each other, the other guys in the locker room,” Arnett said.
“I think it said a lot of those guys individually. They’re Mississippi State guys. Line them up, they want to play with their teammates, finish the season off with them.
“Those are obviously guys you love having in your locker room and you appreciate what they’ve done for your program.
Junior quarterback Will Rogers (3,713 yards, 34 TDs, 3 INTs) will take on the nation’s fifth-best pass defense (165.4 YPG) in FBS, in a matchup of strength versus strength.
It’s Leach’s very pass happy Air Raid offense versus one of the nation’s best pass defenses. A pass-oriented team versus a run-focused squad.
But Rogers will have to adjust to being without his leading receiver, Rara Thomas, who entered the transfer portal.
The team’s second leading rusher, Dillon Johnson transferred out too.
On the other side of the ball, Miss St. also has some key opt-outs in the secondary. But all in all, Miss St. has the edge in terms of talent and depth lost to the bowl game opt-outs here.
The Bulldogs losses to the transfer portal and draft process are not as damaging as what the Illini have to contend with.
Illinois Fighting Illini Preview
Junior running back Chase Brown (1,643 yards, 10 TDs) only needed 54 yards to surpass Mikel Leshoure’s school single-season rushing record. Instead he decided to forgo the rest of his eligibility, starting with this game.
Ranked as the #9 RB on Mel Kiper’s draft board and given where running backs are valued in the NFL these days, he projects to about a round four or round five prospect. This despite leading the nation in rushing for most of the season.
His twin brother, Sydney, is an all-star safety on the other side of the ball.
He also opted out, and he’s rated a day three, early mid round prospect in the draft. Cornerback Devon Witherspoon, who has some very impressive NextGen stats that verify how talented and special he is, also opted out.
As a sure fire first-round prospect, it was an easy decision, and this was fully expected.
“Unique experience for me this year,” said Illini coach Bret Bielema.
“Bowl games, seven straight at Wisconsin, three of the five years at Arkansas, never had a player opt out of a game, right? That was the first challenge. We had three good players opt out. That’s the first unique challenge.”
The Illini defense (12.3 PPG) led the nation in fewest points per game allowed, most of the year but it will be a challenge to contend with Mississippi State’s potent air raid offense (314.3 passing yards per game), especially without half of their starters in the secondary.
Yet another major adjustment for Bret Bielema and his staff, is the loss of defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, who left to take the Purdue head coaching job. He took outside linebackers coach Kevin Kane, who was considered a strong candidate to replace him, to be his new D. Coordinator in West Lafayette
Aaron Henry, the DBs coach who played under Bielema at Wisconsin, now takes over as the new defensive coordinator. The Illini will be fired up to try and win this one for him.
QB1 Tommy DeVito had a very solid season, and with his college eligibility expiring after this game, Illinois will need a new transfer portal quarterback for next year. They got one today in Ole Miss’ Luke Altmyer.
Illinois will now attack the Miss St. defense with the tailback tandem of Chase Hayden and Reggie Love, in Brown’s absence.
Prediction: Illinois 23, Mississippi State 21
Both teams went 8-4 this season, although MSU probably played the tougher slate. This game is pick’em for a reason, and it could easily go either way.
It’s easy to predict a “Bulldogs win one for their departed coach” storyline, but honestly, I don’t think it will play out that way.
I think Bielema finds a way, despite all the key pieces that he’s missing. Illinois has never won a traditional New Year’s Day bowl game in the modern era, but there’s a first for everything.
Paul M. Banks is the owner/manager of The Sports Bank. He’s also the author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America,” and “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry.”
He’s written for numerous publications, including the New York Daily News, Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune. He regularly appears on NTD News and WGN News Now. Follow the website on Twitter and Instagram.