GridironGrit.com’s Michael Gartman (Founder, CEO, NFL and College Football Senior Writer) and Oren Shiri (Marketing Coordinator, NFL and College Football Analyst) are previewing 16 of the best bowl games in the 2011 College Football Bowl Season. This is their fourth edition in the series.
The 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl features a pair of six-win teams in the Illinois Fighting Illini (6-6) and Pac-12 South Champion UCLA Bruins (6-7) on New Year’s Eve at 3:30pm EST on ESPN.
For those who believe the production of many bowl games have only served to reward undeserving teams, this year’s Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl could look to serve as a prime exhibit.
History: This is the 11th all-time meeting between the two teams and UCLA leads the series 6-5. They’ve met three times in postseason play, including the 1947 Rose Bowl, 1984 Rose Bowl (Neuheisel was at quarterback) and 1991 Sun Bowl.
What It Means To Illinois: The Fighting Illini are searching with a set of binoculars for a confidence boost and to bounce back with some momentum heading into next season. Illinois, interestingly enough, is the first team to enter the bowl season with a losing record in a decade.
What It Means To UCLA: The motivation for UCLA is avoiding a losing record. A 50-0 loss in the final regular-season game led to Neuheisel’s firing. The Bruins made it to the conference title game in the weak Pac-12 South because the Trojans were ineligible because of NCAA sanctions.
“It’s been crazy, real crazy. The SC game was obviously a huge letdown for us,” UCLA quarterback Kevin Price said in a local press conference in Los Angeles. ”But to be able to come to a bowl even though we’re 6-7 is big-time. Even though we’ve been real up and down this year, we want to go out on a win. There’s no way we want to go out of here 6-8; 7-7 feels a lot better than 6-8.”
Matchup To Watch: Illinois Front Seven On Defense vs. UCLA Power Ground Attack
The Bruins have rushed for at least 200 yards six times this season and led to five wins on the season. Reaching that mark won’t be a day at the beach against All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus and the Illini. Mercilus has helped Illinois rank seventh in the nation in total defense. He has forced nine fumbles. Jonathan Brown has also excelled with 19 tackles for loss, including ten in the past four games.
Prediction: Illinois 33, UCLA 17
Illinois Season In Review: The Fighting Illini were chock-full of fight in the first half of the season, starting off with a stellar 6-0 start to the year, which included wins over woeful Arkansas State, South Dakota State and Indiana all in a landslide and Northwestern, Arizona State and Western Michigan each by three points.
It went downhill fast, nonetheless. After falling short against Ohio State by 10, Purdue by 7 and Penn State by 3, the Illini got smashed by Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin by 48 combined points to end the season on a six-game losing skid.
UCLA Season In Review: The Bruins also had their fair share of winning and losing patterns throughout the year. The team opened the season with a heart-wrenching loss in Houston in thrilling fashion and bounced back with a convincing win over San Jose State. After receiving a beatdown from Texas, the Bruins got back to business with a narrow win over conference rival Oregon State.
The first week of October was one to forget, as UCLA suffered a serious blowout by Stanford. But the program responded with a must-win down-to-the-wire against Washington State. After an unexpected lopsided loss against Arizona, the Bruins struck gold against the Golden Bears of California and found the win in a fun-filled conference thriller against Arizona State to kick off the month of October.
The final four weeks of the season weren’t at all pretty, as UCLA got outscored by Utah 31-6, before beating up on the Buffaloes 45-6, only to get shut out 50-0 to USC and fall to Quack Attack in the Pac-12 Championship 49-31.
Coaching Carousel: In addition to the head-scratching winning and losing streaks, UCLA required a waiver to earn a bowl bid. Both programs fired their head coaches—Rick Neuheisel of UCLA and Ron Zook of Illinois—in late November, before hiring permanent replacements in Jim Mora Jr. and Tim Beckman. Nonetheless, these two programs will be lead under the direction of interim coaches Vic Koenning of Illinois and Mike Johnson of UCLA for this bowl game.
Absent Players: In addition, two of Illinois’ players—including leading rusher Jason Ford and five Bruins—including second-string quarterback Richard Brehaut are out of the lineup for recent injuries or suspensions.
Look for the Bruins to put up a great fight, but the Illini finally bounce back and earn their first win since early October.
Prediction: Illinois 27, UCLA 17
You may notice this article was published well after the action got under way. It was due to time constraints, however our predictions (which never change whenever we make them known) were posted on our Facebook page before kickoff.
Here’s our predictions for previous bowl games:
Bowl Season Records:
Michael Gartman (3-0), Oren Shiri (3-0)