ReliaQuest Bowl: Illinois (8-4) vs. No. 24 Mississippi State (8-4, No. 22 CFP), Jan. 2, noon EST (ESPN2)
FANDUEL SPORTSBOOK COLLEGE LINE: Mississippi State by 2 1/2.
Series record: 1-1.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Mississippi State will be playing for the first time since coach Mike Leach died Dec. 12 due to complications from a heart condition. Players and staff decided to remain in the game because they said it was what Leach would expect them to do. Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett was hired as the new head coach on Dec. 15. Illinois is looking for its first nine-win season since its Rose Bowl team in 2007 went 9-4.
Mississippi State QB Will Rogers against the stingy Illinois defense. Rogers completed 386 of 566 passes for 3,713 yards and 34 touchdowns. He is the Southeastern Conference leader in completions (1,130) and holds the school passing yards (10,428) and touchdown pass (81) marks. Illinois was ranked in the top 10 in 17 major defensive categories during the regular season. The Illini held six opponents to under 10 points.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Illinois: QB Tommy DeVito completed 69.9% of his passes (234 of 335) for the third-best completion percentage nationally during the regular season. His role will be pivotal because of RB Chase Brown’s decision to not play in the bowl game in order to prepare for the NFL draft. Brown was the nation’s second-leading rusher, with 1,643 yards in the regular season.
Mississippi State: LB Nathaniel Watson has a team-leading 108 tackles, including 11 for a loss. The redshirt senior also has five sacks and an interception. He recorded double-digit tackles in seven games.
FACTS & FIGURES
Illinois is 0-2 in bowl games since its last win, a 20-14 triumph over UCLA in the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. … Mississippi State is on a 13-season bowl streak. … Mississippi State WR Rara Thomas, who caught 44 passes for 626 yards and seven touchdowns, transferred to Georgia through the portal. … Illinois CB Devon Witherspoon and S Sydney Brown also will not play in the game after deciding to enter the NFL draft. Brown and Chase Brown are twins. … Mississippi State won the last meeting between the teams, 28-21 in 1980. Illinois took the initial game, 27-0 in 1923. … Three of Mississippi State’s losses came against then-No. 22 Kentucky, No. 6 Alabama and No. 1 Georgia. The other defeat came in Week 3 to then-unranked LSU, which ended up No. 16 in the final Associated Press regular-season poll.
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