The 2022 ReliaQuest Bowl won’t be just any other game on Monday in Tampa. This matchup between No. 22 Mississippi State (8-4) and Illinois (8-4) will be a highly emotional day after the sudden and unexpected passing of Bulldogs coach Mike Leach on December 12. Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett has taken over the program, and the Bulldogs elected to play this game in Coach Leach’s honor.
These teams have met twice in their history, with Illinois winning in 1923 and MSU winning in 1980. Monday’s kickoff on ESPN2 is set for Noon E.T. from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. The Bulldogs are favored by 1.5 points, with the game total set at 46 points.
Mississippi State Bulldogs Overview
It is impossible to analyze where the Bulldogs are mentally and emotionally as they prepare to play this game in Leach’s honor. No team in recent memory has been in this position, and the Bulldogs are coming off a huge rivalry upset on the road over Ole Miss on Thanksgiving weekend.
On the field, they are led by quarterback Will Rogers who has 3,713 yards on the season with 34 touchdowns and only six interceptions. The air raid offense also saw Rogers top 300 yards in seven games this season with three 400-yard games. Rogers had two 5-touchdown games and threw for six against Bowling Green in September.
Jo’quavious Marks leads the team in rushing with 532 yards, and he had a season-high 76 yards on the ground against Ole Miss. Their second-leading rusher, Dillon Johnson, has entered the transfer portal and will not play in the bowl game.
Despite also losing top wideout Rara Thomas (44 rec, 628 yds, 7 TD) to the portal, Rogers still has plenty of options. Rufus Harvey has 472 yards on the season, and Caleb Ducking has 467 receiving yards.
The top safety on the Bulldogs, Collin Duncan, has opted out to prepare for the NFL draft. MSU allows 207 ypg passing on the season and rank 55th in the nation with 143 ypg allowed on the ground.
Illinois Fighting Illini Overview
This was a big season for Brett Bielema and the Fighting Illini as they competed for the Big Ten West title until the final day of the season. Only a November collapse, with losses to Purdue, Michigan State, and Michigan, prevented the Illini from heading to Indianapolis. They picked up milestone wins over Wisconsin and Iowa on the season while being ranked as high as 16th.
The bad news for the Illini is they must find a way to win this game without superstar running back Chase Brown, who has declared for the NFL draft. The junior ran for a Big Ten best 1,643 yards this season and topped 100 yards in all but two games. With Brown out, the Illini turn to Reggie Love III, who has 277 yards on the season while no other healthy running back has more than 12 carries.
Quarterback Tommy Devito has 2,397 yards on the season with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions. The senior transfer has completed 70% of his passes but hasn’t topped 205 yards since November 5. Wideout Isaiah Williams is the top target with 595 yards and five touchdowns.
The Illini hang their hat on defense, allowing 98.4 ypg on the ground and 165.4 through the air. They surrendered just 12.3 ppg on the season, which leads all FBS teams. Illinois gave up ten or fewer points in seven of 12 games this season while grabbing 22 interceptions and 28 sacks.
Mississippi State/Illinois Prediction
Mississippi State is favored by 1.5 points on the spread and -125 on the money line. Illinois is a +105 money line underdog and +1.5 points on the spread. The total is 46 points, with both the over and under at -110.
This game is tough to read for a couple of reasons. First of all, how will MSU respond emotionally to their tragic loss? Second, how will the Illini run the ball without Brown?
What we do know is that Illini has an elite defense, and MSU cannot stop the run nearly as well as teams the Illini gashed in the Big Ten all season. MSU also will be without their top wideout and their second-best running back. Look for this game to be slow-moving and for the point total to stay under the target.