It will be an emotionally fueled game for Mississippi State after the surprise passing of head coach Mike Leach. Leach was one of the pioneers of the air raid offense, and his lasting impact on the sport was and will continue to be felt for years to come.
Mississippi State had preemptive talks on whether to play the game or not but eventually decided that it was what Leach would have wanted. They decided to tap defensive coordinator Zach Arnett to coach the team in the ReliaQuest Bowl and in the future.
This ReliaQuest Bowl will be decided by which team imposes its style of play.
Illinois started the season hot, and had a chance to win the Big Ten West but lost three of their last four games to finish 8-4. Even so, it was a big step forward in Bret Bielema‘s second season at the helm.
The Illini were one of the best defenses not only in the Big Ten, but the country, and managed to establish a solid rushing attack to complement their defense.
Mississippi State will throw it all over the field with senior quarterback Will Rogers, who attempted an NCAA-high 566 passes this season. He led the Bulldogs to an 8-4 record despite having one of the worst rushing offenses in the NCAA.
Illinois vs Mississippi State Odds for ReliaQuest Bowl
As of Tuesday, Dec. 27, at noon ET at BetMGM Sportsbook, Illinois is a one-and-a-half point favorite against Mississippi State.
Mississippi State and Illinois have two conflicting styles of play and the oddsmakers have leaned toward the Illinois defense and run-game controlling the game with the total set at a low 46 points.
Illinois vs Mississippi State Prediction for ReliaQuest Bowl
Illinois 24, Mississippi State 21
Illinois’ defense has led them to one of the best seasons in recent school history, and I’ll take them to finish off the season strong in the ReliaQuest Bowl, formerly known as the Outback Bowl.
The Illini run game could lose a major piece for this game, as junior running back Chase Brown is a potential opt-out. Brown finished the year with 1,883 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns.
The main difference from last year’s Illinois team is the addition of senior transfer Tommy DeVito. DeVito probably won’t win the Illini games, but he plays the perfect style of quarterback to complement one of the best defenses in the country.
DeVito completed 70% of his passes for 2,397 yards and 15 touchdowns to just four interceptions this season. He makes the easy passes, doesn’t push his limits, and gets the ball in the hands of the playmakers.
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Rogers has seemingly taken a step back this season after his breakout last season, but due to a combination of volume and consistency is still among the best quarterbacks in the SEC.
He completed 68.2% of those passes for 3,713 yards and 34 touchdowns with just six interceptions.
The struggle for Mississippi State is an inability and unwillingness to run the ball. The Bulldogs ran the ball for just 946 yards on the season, the second-lowest mark in the country.
Rogers and the Bulldogs have their hands full in this one against the Illinois defense which is first in the nation in scoring defense but has yet to see an offense that resembles the short, dink-and-dunk passing attack of the Bulldogs.
Mississippi State was an average defense in the SEC this season but has struggled to slow down effective rushing attacks. The best example is Kentucky running the ball 48 times for 239 yards on the Bulldogs’ defense.
It’s two contrasting styles between two solid and evenly matched teams, creating what should be a great game in the inaugural ReliaQuest Bowl.
Illinois vs Mississippi State Best Bets for ReliaQuest Bowl
Over 45.5 Points (-110) at FanDuel Sportsbook
WAGER: 1 Unit
This total just feels too low for a game in which both teams have a month of preparation and are unfamiliar with each other’s style.
Illinois hasn’t seen an air raid offense like this, as the closest representation would probably be Purdue who the Fighting Illini allowed 31 points and lost to.
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Mississippi State is used to the speed of the SEC, but not the strength of a big and nasty Big Ten offensive line. Illinois will have success running the ball and DeVito will be able to complete a couple of key passes to keep drives alive.
Illinois Moneyline (-110) at BetMGM Sportsbook
WAGER: 1 Unit
This comes down to the Illinois style of play, it is one that is easily repeatable and translates in any football game, at any level.
If you play defense and you can run the ball, you’re going to have a chance to win every game you play in. Illinois does both of those things well.
Illinois is able to control the clock and lean on its nationally-renowned defense to hold off Mississippi State. Even if they allow a couple of big plays, they’re able to force a turnover late and continue to lean on the run game to earn a big win on the road.