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Illinois Fighting Illini
@ UCLA Bruins

Saturday, Dec 31, 2011, 2:30 PM CST
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl - AT&T Park, San Francisco, CA

Immediate KneeJerk Reaction - The Bowl Pairings

Complete Coverage >



Illinois giveth, and Illinois taketh away. I was big pimpin' you in our B1G 2011 preview, and for half the season, you made me look like a genius. GENIUS, I say, and that's damn hard to do, as my wife will attest. Here's what I said in our 'Potluck' preview about the fighting Illini back in May:

I can see the Illini going 6-0 to start the season, and then they get Ohio State at home. That would be the same Ohio State team that will be fielding Terrelle Pryor and his Merry Band of Tattooed Miscreants for only the second time. It's a home game, and Illinois always plays OSU tough. Get past that hurdle, they get Purdue, a team that they should beat. That's 8-0 kids, and the Zooker is the odds-on favorite for Big Ten Coach of the Year.

Who else saw them going 6-0? No one, and my logic was sound, as Illinois was favored for that OSU game. I HAD THE WORLD BY THE ILLINI BALLS. And how was I rewarded for my faith in the Zooker?

Well, an OSU loss is forgiveable, and although that was a bad loss to Purdue at the time, in retrospect it's not the end of the world. But 6 in a row? C'mon, you almost have to try to be that bad. The coup de grace was a season ending thumping at the hands of Minnesota, and that sealed Zook's fate. And we will all be poorer for that.

So those 6 wins had Illinois ranked in the top 20, moving towards the top 10, but the 6 losses got Ron Zook the boot...

(pause, moment of silence)

...and the beginning of the Tim Beckman era. But like Mark McGwire in front of Congress, we're not here to talk about the past. We're here to talk about the now, and we're here to Fight Hunger!

And UCLA.

After the jump.

A lot of people look to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl and say that this particular game is everything that is wrong with the bowl system today--there's too many games, and teams are rewarded for mediocrity. And they have a point, in some respects, as Illinois and UCLA are a combined 12-13 on the season, and UCLA had to get a waiver to go to a bowl game because they are 6-7. The loser of this game is assured of a losing record.

But I say screw them, I love college football, and this game will be a good measuring stick against two mid-level teams from two BCS power conferences. If somebody invites you to a bowl game, go, hold your head high, and don't apologize for being there. Prove the haters wrong and put on a good show.

So who has the edge here? Well, not surprisingly, I'm going with Illinois. Their defense is still good--they gave up an inexcusable 27 points to the Gophers, but during their 6 game losing streak, they weren't terrible. They kept Illinois in the OSU and Penn State games, and there's no shame in giving up 28 to Wisconsin. For the most part, Illinois has played very well defensively against average to bad offenses, and that's exactly what UCLA has. They are 85th in scoring nationally, and they are 96th in points given up--this just in, that's bad. UCLA can run the ball, but Illinois is a respectable 41st nationally against the run. Not great, but I don't expect the Bruins to run roughshod, either. Illinois is also stingy in the red zone, ranking 21st in the country in points against.

This is an opportunity for Nathan Scheelhaase to end the season much like he started it--on a positive note. He played very well over the first 6 weeks, but slumped badly during the 6 game losing streak, having twice as many interceptions as TD passes.

So who wants it more? Both coaches that started the season for their respective teams are gone, both teams are being coached by an interim coach who is only coaching this one game (Mike Johnson v. Vic Koenning, who was asked to stay on as defensive coordinator at Illinois but declined), and both teams have new coaches named (Jim Mora and Tim Beckman). UCLA has four players ineligible for the bowl game, Illinois only has one, but it's their top rusher, Jason Ford.

In short, these teams are exactly the same, but I think Nathan Scheelhaase is more capable of playing a better game than his counterpart, Kevin Prince. And I like the Illini defense better than the UCLA defense.

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