In the preseason, few predicted that Illinois and Baylor would be in the postseason. The Fighting Illini had been to one bowl in the first five seasons under Ron Zook, who entered the year on the hot seat. And Baylor hadn't been to a bowl since 1994.
"We are excited," Bears coach Art Briles said. "We had to look up the word 'excited' in the dictionary because we hadn't been able to be that way for a while. It's been 16 years since we've been in a bowl game and our people are pumped, and rightfully so, because when you've looked on the outside for a long time and you finally get a chance to step in the door, it's a good feeling."
But here they are, primed to meet in a game that will give the winner momentum entering 2011.
The game also could serve as a catalyst for a 2011 Heisman run by Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin.
WHO GETS THE EDGE?
Baylor rush offense vs. Illinois rush defense: Baylor has one of the nation's top offensive weapons in QB Robert Griffin, who ranks seventh in the nation in total offense (315.5 ypg). The Bears have another weapon in RB Jay Finley, who has run for 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns, thanks to lots of good blocks from star T Danny Watkins. Illinois has been solid against the run (131.3 ypg), thanks to a good front seven led by LB Martez Wilson, who has 10.5 tackles for loss, and T Corey Liuget, who has 8.5 tackles for loss. Edge: Even.
WHEN: Dec. 29, 6 p.m.
WHERE: Reliant Stadium, Houston.
TV:ESPN (Dave Pasch will do play-by-play; with Chris Spielman and Bob Griese as the analysts).
THE LINE: Illinois by 1.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Baylor 1-5, Illinois 3-5.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Baylor 28th, Illinois 10th.
BCS RANKINGS: Neither is ranked.
OFFICIATING CREW: From the Pac-10.
COACHES: Baylor - Art Briles (0-3 in bowls); Illinois - Ron Zook (0-3 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Baylor is making its first bowl appearance since 1994, when it battled Washington State in the Alamo Bowl. Illinois is making just its second bowl trip in six seasons under Zook, who took the Fighting Illini to the Rose Bowl after the 2007 season. It also should be a good battle of quarterbacks between Baylor's Robert Griffin and Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase.
KEY STATS: Illinois has the No. 13 rushing attack (242.3 ypg) in the nation; Baylor has the No. 23 rushing offense (200.5 ypg).
Baylor pass offense vs. Illinois pass defense: Griffin has thrown for 3,195 yards and run for 591. Griffin has good wide receivers in Kendall Wright, Tevin Reese, Terrance Williams and Lanear Sampson. Griffin will be throwing against a Fighting Illini defense that's limping down the stretch. In losing three of its past four games, Illinois has been ripped for 948 passing yards after showing improvement earlier in the season. The Illini also have allowed 33.7 points per game (not including overtimes) over that stretch after yielding just 16.7 in the first eight games. Edge: Baylor.
Illinois rush offense vs. Baylor rush defense: A Fighting Illini ground game that ranks 13th in the nation (242.3 ypg) may run wild behind a solid line paced by C Graham Pocic. Mikel Leshoure is one of the nation's most underrated running backs. He has rambled for 1,513 yards and 14 touchdowns, with the highlight being a 330-yard effort against Northwestern. Leshoure could have a big game against a Bears' defense that ranks just 73rd in the nation vs. the run (160.3 ypg). Big T Phil Taylor, who began his career at Penn State, must shine, and SS Byron Landor needs to help in run support.
Illinois pass offense vs. Baylor pass defense: Illini redshirt freshman QB Nathan Scheelhaase is a true dual threat, passing for 1,583 yards and 17 touchdowns and running for 815 yards. Scheelhaase, who has solid targets in A.J. Jenkins and Jarred Fayson, should gouge a Baylor defense that ranks 114th in the nation against the pass (267.0 ypg). Edge: Illinois.
Baylor special teams vs. Illinois special teams: Baylor lacks oomph in the return game, but Derek Epperson is third in the Big 12 in punting (44.2-yard average) and Aaron Jones is a solid kicker (19-of-26 on field-goal attempts). The Bears have been horrible in punt coverage but OK in kickoff coverage. The Illini have one of the country's top punters in Anthony Santella, who led the Big Ten with 59 punts and still ranked second with a 45.2-yard average. Illinois also has a standout in K Derek Dimke, but the return teams are abysmal. The Illini's punt coverage is OK, but the kickoff coverage has been mediocre. Edge: Illinois.
Baylor coaches vs. Illinois coaches: Art Briles is an underrated offensive mind who finally may have gotten Baylor over the hump. The defensive staff has some work to do, though. Illinois coach Ron Zook entered 2010 on a hot seat but is going to his second bowl in six seasons thanks to a staff shakeup. New coordinators Paul Petrino (offense) and Vic Koenning (defense) have revitalized the program. Edge: Even.
X-factor: Neither team is hot. The Fighting Illini come in having lost three of their past four games, while Baylor has dropped its past three. Although the focus will be on the offenses, it's the defenses that may end up deciding the contest. Neither school has a steel curtain. Baylor's defense ranks 98th in the nation; Illinois' ranks 38th but foundered down the stretch. Whichever unit can step up, make a few big plays and win the turnover battle figures to help its team triumph.
Baylor will win if: Griffin needs to have a good day in the air (i.e., throw for at least 250 yards). A proficient passing game will open up room against the Illini's front seven and keep that defense off-balance.
Illinois will win if: The Illini need to dominate on the ground. Illinois is a tough, physical team that can pound foes with Leshoure and bullish Jason Ford. A strong rushing attack will wear down an iffy Baylor defense and also keep the ball away from the uber-talented Griffin.
Olin Buchanan: Baylor 37, Illinois 35
Tom Dienhart: Baylor 34, Illinois 31
David Fox: Baylor 28, Illinois 21
Mike Huguenin: Baylor 30, Illinois 24
Steve Megargee: Baylor 31, Illinois 28