Illinois broke through in a big way in Year 2 under Bret Bielema. The Illini finished 8-4, and just narrowly missed out on a trip to Indianapolis for the B1G Championship Game.

On Sunday, Illinois was rewarded with a Florida bowl game. The Illini will head to Tampa to take on SEC foe Mississippi State Jan. 2 in the ReliaQuest Bowl. Kickoff is slated for 11 a.m. CT at Raymond James Stadium.

The ReliaQuest Bowl is the former Outback Bowl. The matchup sets up as an intriguing affair between an Illini team that boasts the No. 2 scoring defense in the nation against Mike Leach’s “Air-Raid” offense — the No. 11 passing offense in the FBS.

The teams have met just 2 times in their overall history. The Bulldogs claimed a 28-21 win in 1980, while Illinois shut out MSU 27-0 way back in 1923 in Champaign.

Here are 5 things to know about Illinois’ bowl opponent:

1. Leach wins wherever he goes

Leach, known as “The Pirate,” has had success at all 3 of his stops. He has a 158-107 overall record with stops at Texas Tech, Washington State and now Mississippi State.

The Pirate spent 10 years in Lubbock, compiling a record of 84-43. He went to Pullman and went 55-47 in 8 seasons. In his 3rd season now in Starkville, Leach is 19-17 overall and 8-4 this season. He’s missed a bowl game only twice in 21 years as a head coach. Pretty impressive work.

Leach is 8-9 in bowl games (not coaching in the 2009 Alamo Bowl after leaving TTU for Washington State).

2. Will Rogers is one of nation’s best QBs

Mississippi State is led by quarterback Will Rogers. The junior has put up video game-like numbers. In 2021, Rogers threw for over 4,700 yards. This year, his numbers have regressed a little. But Rogers has still put up strong stats. He has 3,713 yards passing and 34 TDs. He has just 6 INTs — his lowest interception total in 3 years.

Rogers threw 6 TD passes in a September win over Bowling Green. He threw 5 against both Memphis and ETSU. He found the end zone 3 times or more in 7 games. The passing game — led by Rogers — will stress a talented Illini defense and secondary.

3. Egg Bowl winners, best season since 2018

The Bulldogs ended a few streaks in 2022. Mississippi State won the Egg Bowl for the 1st time since 2019, beating rival Ole Miss 24-22 on Thanksgiving night.

Leach’s squad also won 8 games for the 1st time since the 2018 season. The bowl bid marks the 13th straight year they’ve reached bowl eligibility.

4. Illini earn 1st Florida bowl bid since 1999

The game will feature a matchup of teams that have only met twice in their history. Illinois is also 0-3 against SEC teams in bowl games. It will be the 1st Florida bowl game for the Illini since the 1999 Bowl in Miami. A long time coming.

Illini fans will be fired up to travel to a warm weather bowl destination. Tampa is a perfect fit in January for a northern school that hasn’t been to Florida in over 2 decades. AD Josh Whitman was in college, on the team, the last time the Illini went bowling in Florida.

Kudos to Bielema and his team for an epic turnaround. It’ll be a dogfight between programs known for playing 2nd fiddle to other teams in their respective conferences.

5. Battle of big-time, big-name coaches

Leach and Bielema are 2 of the biggest names in college football. They’ve combined for 268 career wins at 6 combined FBS stops. Just incredible.

Needless to say the press conferences prior to the game will be epic. One-liners, coach-speak, adages, you name it. This matchup has a chance to be one of the best bowl games on the card. A potent Bulldogs offense taking aim at an Illinois defense that gives up just 12.3 points per game and 165.4 yards passing. Something has to give.

Bielema vs. Leach. Rogers vs. the Illini DBs Devon Witherspoon and Sydney Brown vs. Rogers. It’s must-watch TV. Not to mention the bragging rights between the 2 big-time conferences. It’s certain to be entertaining.

Chase Brown and the Illini running game will need to do work if Illinois is to be victorious. Defense should dominate the day. Keeping the ball on the ground and away from the potent Bulldogs’ offense needs to be a priority. Leach will want to establish somewhat of a serviceable running game to complement his Air Raid attack. The game plans and execution will be something to watch.

For a pair of legendary coaches who have traversed the landscape of the country, this will be their 1st head-to-head matchup. Don’t think that both men won’t do everything in their power to get the upper hand.