With a dramatic finish in East Lansing over Michigan State on November 9th, Illinois football qualified for its first bowl game since 2014, which is also the first of the Lovie Smith era. Although they lost to Iowa the following game and fell to Northwestern in the ultimate letdown spot, this season is still a success. Now, which bowl games can the Illini go to and when are they? I explored that very topic in a list sorted from least likely to most likely.
The SERVPRO First Responder Bowl - Dallas, Texas (December 30, 12:30PM CT on ESPN)
Typically, this game is played between teams from the Big 12 and the Conference USA, but there's an outside chance the Illini play in this game depending on where the higher-ranked Big Ten teams are placed in the bowl landscape. If they made this bowl game, they would likely play a team to the caliber of UAB or Southern Miss.
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl - Fort Worth, Texas (January 4, 10:30AM CT on ESPN)
This is an actual possibility because this game is basically reserved for a Big Ten team. Opponents would come from the Mountain West Conference or an Independent. The potential list of opponents would include Air Force, Nevada, Utah State, or Wyoming.
Quick Lane Bowl - Detroit, Michigan (December 30, 7:00PM CT on ESPN)
There are a multitude of teams the Illini could match up against in this one. Those would include Boston College, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina, or Pittsburgh. All are possible options.
New Era Pinstripe Bowl - New York City (Bronx), New York (December 27, 2:20PM on ESPN)
Ahhh, Yankee Stadium. This game would likely feature an ACC opponent as well. Any of the above teams are still options. It's very likely that if the Illini end up here or in Detroit, that's the conference they will face.
Red Box Bowl - Santa Clara, California (December 30, 3:00PM on FOX)
Finally, the most likely scenario based on most projections would see the Illini matched up with a PAC-12 team. Most are saying that could be Cal, but there are other options out there like Arizona State, Washington, or Washington State. It all depends on if a PAC-12 team can sneak into the College Football Playoff and how high the committee ranks this conference's teams.
At the end of the day, if you told me in August that the Illini would be going bowling, I would have been ecstatic. The loss of Bobby Roundtree to a devastating off-the-field injury and Marquez Beason needing season-ending knee surgery were massive blows to the expectations for this team. Given all of the injuries the Illini incurred before and throughout the season, 6-6 and a bowl game is pretty successful.
UPDATE: The Fighting Illini will be playing the Univeristy of California-Berkeley in the Red Box Bowl.
Featured Photo: IlliniFootball/Twitter