Who: Illinois Fighting Illini vs UCLA Bruins
Where: AT&T Park (San Fransisco, California)
When: Saturday, Dec 31st at 3:30 PM EST
ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI (6-6, 2-6 in Big Ten)
Most Impressive Victory: 17-14 over then-#22 Arizona State
Worst Loss: 27-7 to Minnesota
Notable Alumni: Dick Butkus, Jeff George, Rashard Mendenhall
In September, everything was looking rosy for Illinois football: fresh off a slight bounce-back year of 7-6 and a bowl win, the Illini opened up this season 6-0 behind a defense that ably replaced several key players from the prior year (most notably, Martez Wilson and Corey Liuget) and an offense that had the unstoppable Nathan Scheelhaase-to-A.J. Jenkins connection. By the end of November, the Illini had set a dubious record (the first team to start 6-0 and then go 0-6 the rest of the way) and seen embattled head coach Ron Zook finally get handed his walking papers. The low point of that collapse was the season finale against a generally lousy Minnesota team, when Illinois struggled to find first downs, let alone points. Interim coach (and former defensive coordinator) Vic Koenning is also expected to head out the door after this game for the defensive coordinator gig at North Carolina.
Still, Illinois does have some good players. The headliners on offense are the aforementioned Scheelhaase and Jenkins. Despite cooling off during that six-game losing skid, Jenkins finished the regular season with 84 catches for 1196 yards and 7 TDs. Scheelhaase threw for 1971 yards on 64% completion percentage with 12 TDs and 7 INTs. He also 514 yards and 6 TDs on the ground and enters the game as Illinois' leading available rusher, with former leading rusher Jason Ford (600 yards, 7 TD) suspended for this game. But perhaps the best player for this Illinois team is DE Whitney Mercilus, who led the nation with 14.5 sacks and also had 19.5 tackles for loss, nine forced fumbles, and six QB hurries. He's widely expected to declare for the NFL Draft after this game, so he could use this game to burnish his highlight reels.
UCLA BRUINS (6-7, 5-4 in Pac-12)
Most Impressive Victory: 29-28 over then-#19 Arizona State
Worst Loss: 48-12 to Arizona
Notable Alumni: Troy Aikman, Maurice Jones-Drew, Jonathan Ogden
Another team, another fired coach. While Illinois was a model of consistency (win six, lose six), UCLA took a more tempestuous route to 6-6 (6-7 after a Pac-12 Championship Game loss to Oregon). Only once all year did UCLA win two games in a row or lose two games in a row; instead, they altered wins and losses for much of the season. When they won, they won close games -- four of their six wins were by 10 points or less. But when they lost, they lost big -- six of their seven losses were by 18 points or more, including a 50-0 pasting by USC in their regular season finale, a 31-6 loss at Utah, a 45-19 loss to Stanford, and (most embarrassingly) a 48-12 smashing by a poor Arizona team. In the wake of that 50-0 curbstomping by cross-town rivals USC, Rick Neuheisal was handed his walking papers as well, meaning we have a bowl game with not one, but two interim head coaches.
UCLA has a generally mediocre offense (62nd nationally in total offense, 85th in scoring offense) and a generally poor defense (91st nationally in total defense, 96th nationally in scoring defense). They're 84th nationally in turnover margin. But they must be good at something, right? Well, their rush offense is pretty good (29th in the nation) and their punting is actually quite good (12th in the nation). That's something, right? Johnathan Franklin (947 yards, 6.0 ypc, 5 TD) and Derrick Coleman (726 yards, 5.1 ypc, 11 TD) form a potent 1-2 punch at running back for the Bruins and Nelson Rosario (1106 yards, 18.1 ypc, 4 TD) is quite a productive receiver.
Ross: The big question with this game is whether either team will even care about being here. Both teams enter the game with interim coaches and on the back of dispiriting losses (several dispiriting losses in a row in Illinois' case), there isn't exactly a lot to play for in this one. There's really no result in this game that would be too surprising, but I lean Illinois because in Jenkins and Mercilus, they seem to have the most talented players on the field. If nothing else, they may want to impress any NFL scouts watching this game.
ILLINOIS 17, UCLA 14
Kevin: This might be the most difficult game of all to pick. Both teams with coaches who have been fired and literally nothing to play for. At least in UCLA's case they have won games since October. Illinois last win was October 8th against a bad Indiana team. Give me UCLA in a game I'm sure many won't watch.
UCLA 26 Illinois 18