ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI (6-6) vs. LOUISIANA TECH BULLDOGS (8-5)
DEC. 26, 1 P.M. ET, DALLAS, COTTON BOWL (ESPN)
Season highlights: After spending virtually the entire year on the hot seat and answering questions about his job status, Tim Beckman rallied the Illini to consecutive wins over Penn State and Northwestern over the final two weeks of the regular season to earn a bowl bid. Even before climbing back into the postseason picture, Illinois had shown signs of improvement with a significant upset over Minnesota in October. Without that victory, the narrow win over the Nittany Lions and the offensive explosion against the Wildcats wouldn’t have been enough to make any travel plans this month.
Season lowlights: Defense is still an issue for Illinois, and for the most part, all it took was a decent offense to make that painfully obvious. During a brutal three-week stretch in the middle of the year, the Illini allowed 45 points to Nebraska, 38 to Purdue and 38 to Wisconsin while dropping each of those contests -- which only inflamed the doubts about Beckman’s ability to lead the program into the future.
Player to watch: If he’s not yet a familiar name outside of the Big Ten, get ready to hear plenty about true freshman wide receiver Mike Dudek. There was preseason buzz that Dudek could be a dangerous target in the slot in the mold of Wes Welker for the Illini, and he lived up that billing with 69 receptions for 965 yards and six touchdowns to explode on the conference scene.
Motivation factor: After getting kicked around early and facing plenty of tough questions about the future of the program, Illinois has a chance to finish with a winning record and claim a trophy in the process. Rolling into the postseason with some momentum after back-to-back wins doesn’t hurt, either, and the Illini figure to be fired up and ready to play after they could have folded in November. -- Austin Ward
vs.LOUISIANA TECH BREAKDOWN
Season highlights: It wasn’t the end Louisiana Tech was looking for, losing to Marshall in the Conference USA title game. The Bulldogs had won six of seven coming into that game, and they clinched the division with a 76-31 rout over Rice the week before. Quarterback Cody Sokol and the offense led the way in that game, but the defense has been just as good down the stretch. Louisiana Tech leads the nation with 40 takeaways on the season.
Season lowlights: Louisiana Tech won eight games, beating five bowl eligible teams along the way, but there’s no explanation for its early-season loss to FCS foe Northwestern State. The Bulldogs blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter and while it didn’t affect their conference record or chance at a bowl game, it was still an embarrassing loss. They also coughed up a lead to Old Dominion later in the season, losing that game in overtime.
Player to watch: If you’re looking for a safe bet in the bowl game, bet on Kenneth Dixon getting into the end zone. He’s scored a touchdown in every game but one, the season opener at Oklahoma, and he’s top 10 nationally with 21 touchdowns on the season. In his last four games, Dixon has rushed for 478 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s averaging over 6 yards per carry during that span. At that pace, the junior is likely moving up draft boards as a potential sleeper pick if he decides to come out early.
Motivation factor: It might be tough for this Louisiana Tech team to get up after the crushing loss to Marshall in the conference championship, but this is only the fourth bowl game in the past 20 years for the Bulldogs. They will be ready to put the Marshall game behind them and end the season on a high note, regardless of the opponent. -- Greg Ostendorf