Four things to watch in Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, which kicks off at 1 p.m. ET (ESPN) Friday and features Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech:
Big Ten transfers versus Illinois: Two of Louisiana Tech's better players -- quarterback Cody Sokol and defensive end Houston Bates -- both competed in the B1G before transferring earlier this year to the Conference USA school. Bates actually played for Illinois before announcing in February he was moving to Louisiana Tech to be closer to his family. He was an All-B1G honorable mention last season, and he currently leads the Bulldogs with 5.5 sacks this season. Sokol played for Iowa last season but decided to move on after finding himself third on the depth chart, behind Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard. Iowa confirmed his departure in March, and he didn’t need to sit out a year since he graduated in May. Sokol has thrown for 3,189 yards and passed for 29 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. He was named the Conference USA Newcomer of the Year.
Can Louisiana Tech’s offense be slowed down?: The Bulldogs’ offense didn’t crack the top 40 in rushing or passing, but it is ranked highly where it counts the most -- scoring. Louisiana Tech is No. 12 nationally by averaging 37.5 points per game, nearly twice what it scored last season (19.2 ppg). With an efficient red-zone offense -- Kenneth Dixon has 21 rushing touchdowns -- Louisiana Tech has also been scoring touchdowns at a greater percentage (71.7 percent of trips) than Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State.
That’s not great news for Illinois, which struggles in just about every statistical category on defense. The Illini have the No. 115 red zone defense (89.6 percent), No. 112 total defense (464.3 ypg) and the No. 107 scoring defense (33.9 ppg). Plus, Louisiana Tech hasn’t lost a game all season when it scores 30 points. Its record stands at 7-0 when scoring 30 or more, and 1-5 when scoring less.
Two young, overlooked all-conference wideouts: Louisiana Tech sophomore Trent Taylor and Illinois freshman Mike Dudek each had just one FBS scholarship offer -- and they’re making quite a few teams regret not taking a closer look. (Fortunately for the Bulldogs and Illini, it just so happened that Taylor played high school football in Louisiana, and Dudek was from Illinois.)
Dudek was a first-team All-B1G selection and led the team with 65 catches, 965 yards and six touchdowns. He had 439 more receiving yards than the No. 2 target. Taylor found a spot on the second-team All-Conference USA and had 62 catches, 814 yards and nine touchdowns -- 338 more yards than the No. 2. You’re likely going to hear a lot more from these two receivers over the next few seasons, so it’s worth keeping an eye on them here.
Turnover battle: No team in the nation has forced more turnovers than Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs have caused 25 interceptions and 15 fumble recoveries this season -- more than twice as many forced turnovers as Illinois -- and that opportunistic defense could pose problems for Tim Beckman’s squad.
Two Louisiana Tech defensive backs -- Xavier Woods and Adairius Barnes -- have five interceptions apiece. Illinois has forced just seven interceptions total. And, when it comes to turnover margin, there’s also obviously a big gap between these two teams. The Bulldogs are fifth nationally (plus-1.15 per game); Illinois is 75th (minus-0.17 per game).