ReliaQuest Bowl Preview: Mississippi State vs Illinois

The first college football game of 2023 will be a clash between the SEC and Big Ten in the ReliaQuest Bowl from Tampa, Florida. The annual bowl game formerly known as the Outback Bowl will feature the Mississippi State Bulldogs and the Illinois Fighting Illini. Both teams ended the regular season with 8-4 records and look to obtain that impressive ninth victory. For Illinois head coach Brett Bielema, he is no stranger to playing in Tampa or against the Bulldogs. When he was the head coach for Wisconsin he lost 24-21 to Tennessee in the 2008 Outback Bowl. Also, during his tenure at Arkansas from 2013-17, he was 1-4 against the Bulldogs. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2 and is scheduled for a 12 p.m. EST start.

ReliaQuest Bowl Preview: Mississippi State vs Illinois

Mike Leach

The Mississippi State Bulldogs will be playing with heavy hearts in the ReliaQuest Bowl. On December 12th, head coach Mike Leach passed away from a heart attack that occurred the day prior. Leach was in his third season as the head coach at Mississippi State going 19-17 and got his first win over Ole Miss to close out the season. He left his stamp on college football with his air raid offense that changed football at all levels. He went 84-43 overall as a head coach with stops at Texas Tech and Washington State before heading to Starkville. Some members of his coaching tree are names such as Sonny Dykes, Lincoln Riley, and Josh Heupel to just name a few. Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett was named the new head coach on December 15th, and Steve Spurrier Jr. will call the plays on offense. The Bulldogs will be looking to win this one in honor of Mike Leach.

Mississippi State Offense vs Illinois Defense

This is the strength vs strength match-up of the ReliaQuest Bowl. The Bulldogs bring in the SEC’s leading passer Will Rogers with 3,713 yards on the season. He also threw for 34 touchdowns and completed 68% of his passes this season. It will be worth watching how Spurrier Jr. does as the play-caller for the first time ever in his career. Both quarterback and play-caller will be going up against an Illinois defense that was one of the best in college football in 2022. They are second in FBS allowing just 263.8 yards per game, and first allowing 12.3 points. The secondary was elite intercepting 22 passes and allowing only eight passing touchdowns.

Illinois will be without key contributors on that side though. All-Big Ten performers Devan Witherspoon and Sydney Brown will be missing from the secondary. Both are two of the very best in college football, and Brown picked off the opposing quarterback six times. Mississippi State will look to take advantage of those holes in the secondary. Leading receiver Rara Thomas left the program by way of the transfer portal but can rely on Rufus Harvey and Caleb Ducking to pick up the slack. Illinois has some All-Big Ten conference performers on the defensive front seven in linemen Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph. While the Bulldogs do not run it often, both linemen can cause issues for Rogers with 10 combined sacks between the two.

Illinois Offense vs Mississippi State Defense

Illinois brings an offense that is the exact opposite of what Mississippi State does. The Fighting Illini wants to run the ball and run it some more. With that said, they might have to lean more on the passing game with Tommy Devito to win the ReliaQuest Bowl. They will be without Chase Brown who opted out of the game. Brown is one of the best running backs in all of college football rushing for 1,643 yards and ten touchdowns. Reggie Love is next up, but he only rushed for 277 yards and two touchdowns. If Devito is asked to throw more than usual, he will need receivers Isaiah Williams and Pat Bryant to step up.

Defensively for Mississippi State, it is a very underrated group compared to other SEC teams. They rank fifth in the SEC in yards allowed (350.3), passing yards (206.8), and rushing yards (143.6). The Bulldogs have many leaders on that side of the ball, and one of them is SEC-leading tackler Nathaniel Watson at linebacker with 108. He also has five sacks on the season and one interception. In the secondary, the Illinois quarterback will need to know where Emmanuel Forbes is at all times. Forbes led the SEC with six interceptions on the season and returned three for touchdowns. Forbes did declare for the draft after the season but wanted to suit up for the Bulldogs one last time.

ReliaQuest Bowl Prediction

This will be one of the more emotional games of the entire bowl season. Mississippi State will look to honor Mike Leach with a win here and get that ninth victory of the season. Also, with the missing stars on offense and defense for Illinois, it is hard to see Illinois getting the win here. The Bulldogs will win 31-14.