The theme for this year’s Reliaquest Bowl (formerly the Outback Bowl) seems to be one of loss. Not just the shocking passing of former Mississippi State coach Mike Leach, a tragedy much bigger than football, but also the opt-outs. We all lose when all the star players out of bowl games, but you absolutely cannot blame the players for doing so.
They are just looking out for their own interests, as they should. But unfortunately, we end up with two teams that are a shell of what they once were this season, by the time kick-off comes around.
Reliaquest Bowl Illinois vs #22 Mississippi St. FYIs
Kickoff: Jan. 2, noon ET, ESPN2
Early Game Preview/Matchup Analysis: go here
Spread: MSU -1.5 -110 Money Line, O/U 45.5 Illini -105 ML
Illini Bowl Game History: go here
It’s not just a Reliaquest Bowl thing, as all the bowls are getting with opt-outs, for either the transfer portal or the 2023 NFL draft. So much so that now a “Bowl Game Opt Out Tracker” is a real thing these days. Multiple media outlets publish these, as it’s a reality we’ll have to live with now.
That’s the thing about progress, it comes with side effects, growing pains, if you will. It’s wonderful that college athletes are finally getting individual and personal rights these days, and we’ll just have to deal with the quality of the bowl games diminishing.
Things have really come a long way since Leonard Fournette (LSU) became the first big name player to opt-out of a big bowl game. (the 2016 Citrus Bowl)
ReliaQuest Bowl Opt-outs
No. 22 Mississippi State Bulldogs
The team’s leading receiver, in the extremely pass happy Air Raid system, entered the portal and transferred to the Georgia Bulldogs. He is ranked by 247Sports’ as the No. 16 player in the transfer portal. He caught 44 passes for 626 yards and seven touchdowns this season.
MSU has plenty of depth, as their base offense starts four WRs, but Thomas is probably the best one, overall. Benchwarming WR Zavion Thomas and Scoobie Ford also entered the portal.
The team’s second leading rusher, and part-time starter entered the portal shortly after the Reliaquest Bowl was announced. He did so in rather vocal and colorful fashion, and you can read about that here. If there is one position where opt-outs are the most likely, it’s running back, and understandably so.
The other part-time starter, RB Jo’quavious Marks, will need to carry the load in the bowl game now. Far down the depth chart Miss St. RBs Ke’Travion Hargrove and J.J. Jernighan entered the portal as well.
Safeties Collin Duncan (NFL Draft) and Dylan Lawrence (Transfer portal)
Duncan has the best grade, by PFF, of all Bulldogs defenders.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Brown, ranked as the No. 9 running back in the draft by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., thanked his family, teammates, coache
As a lifelong Illini, from a family of Illini, this one truly hurts, deeply. Brown led the Power 5 and was third in the FBS in rushing yards (1,643) and rushing touchdowns (10).
The first Illini in program history to be named a Doak Walker Award finalist, he leaves as the school’s second-leading career rusher (3,558 yards) behind only Robert Holcombe (4,105 yards from 1994 to ’97) and with the third-highest single-season rushing total behind Mikel Leshoure (1,697 yards in 2010) and Rashard Mendenhall (1,681 yards in 2007).
Honestly, we thought he would stay, just to try and get that Illini single-season rushing record, but hey, we get it. You got to strike while the iron is hot, and the current price of his stock will never be higher, so he has got to go get paid. Still this stings as he was the team’s most important player this season.
Tight end Luke Ford, who is a minor role player at best, also opted out to declare for the Draft. Originally signed with Georgia, Ford, has elite measurables, but he hasn’t produced much of anything on the field.
Chase’s twin brother is listed as the No. 7 safety on ESPN’s prospect list, and he’ll skip the bowl game for Draft prep. He started all five seasons he was on campus. During the 2022 regular season, Brown tied for the FBS lead with six interceptions.
He was named first team all conference.
A consensus all-American in 2022, Witherspoon is a projected first-round pick, and we accurately predicted he would opt-out. His decision was predictable because it makes perfect sense.
Witherspoon was PFF’s #2 overall graded cornerback of the entire power five. Per the school, Witherspoon led the country in completion percentage against (33.8) and forced incompletions (16).
He was the team’s best player at his position this past season.
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.”
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