The ReliaQuest Bowl this year features a pair of 8-4 teams as the Mississippi State Bulldogs face the Illinois Fighting Illini.
By Steve Wright
It is hard to look at this game away from the tragic and untimely death of Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach, but the Bulldogs’ players chose to go ahead and play in the ReliaQuest Bowl as a tribute to the man who had led them since 2020.
Here are the three keys to a Mississippi State win:
1 – Coping With Change
The death of Leach from complications due to a heart condition means that the MSU coaching staff will be different for this game. Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett was promoted to the full-time head coaching gig, and it will be interesting to see what changes he makes for his first game in charge. The Bulldogs are not the only school in this one with staff changes either. Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters took charge of the No. 1 defense (12.3 points per game) in the country, a feat that got him promoted to the head coaching gig at Purdue. Walters took half the Illinois staff with him, and the result is that whichever team best copes with staff upheaval will be in the driver’s seat in this one.
An Aerial Assault
The Air Raid offense Leach used to such significant effect during his coaching career needs to be on point against Illinois. This is one of these weird bowl games with a slew of players missing, with the Bulldogs losing leading receiver (626 yards) Rara Thomas to Georgia via the transfer portal. They will also be without second-leading rusher Dillon Johnson, another transfer. That, however, is nothing compared to what Illinois is dealing with. All-American cornerback Devon Witherspoon and All-Conference safety Sydney Brown are missing as they had to the NFL Draft. That means a defense that was immense in the regular season suddenly looks a little vulnerable.
Win The Physical Battle
This should be a game that is physical in how it is played as opposed to being finesse driven. The Illini will be without leading rusher Chase Brown, another opt-out for the NFL Draft who spent most of the season as the No. 1 rusher in the nation. Even so, their profile won’t change much. They want to win the battle at the line of scrimmage and pound the ball instead of airing it out often. Mississippi State has to meet the challenge and win the physical battle at the point of attack to stop the Illini from playing the game in their style.