Bret Bielema is already looking ahead to next season after the Illini’s season ended with a 19-10 loss to Mississippi State in the ReliaQuest Bowl on Monday.

Tensions were high near the end of the 4th quarter, as Mississippi State took the lead on a short field goal from inside the Illinois five-yard line. The Illini attempted to fight back with a lateral play, but the Bulldogs recovered and rushed it to the end zone for 6.

After the game, the Illinois head coach was quick to focus on the positive and moving ahead, despite the loss. Bielema also praised the loyalty and perseverance of his team, saying “One thing I can promise is we’ve built a roster where it’s hard to find a guy who doesn’t belong here.”

Bielema also noted the improvement of his team, who had a record of 5-7 to end last season. The Illini defense has undergone an overhaul, and Illinois forced several turnovers during Monday’s game.

Matthew Bailey picked off Mississippi State QB Will Rogers for the first turnover, and Kendall Smith picked off another just moments later. For Bielema, such performances are something to look forward to.

According to the coach, the plays are “some things that get us excited about the future. A lot of young players played well today. Now, we get back to Champaign with guys with decisions to make.”

We’ll see what the future holds, but things are still looking up in Champaign.