If you want to get me on a soapbox (trust me: probably you don’t) then a good tactic is to start bashing all of the minor bowl games in an FBS postseason. Gamblers know that “secondary” bowls can be as exciting to watch in the 4th quarter as battles between teams in the Top 10. But the general public is somehow offended that California and Illinois would play a bowl named in honor of the last mainstream in-person video rental service known to humankind.
I think back to hearing of a kid from my hometown, a modest star on the prep level who was never recruited by ACC or SEC schools. He managed to stick on a MAC roster, his program had a winning season, and before you knew it he was “playin’ in a bowl game!” as a friend excitedly phoned me. So what if there aren’t enough grandparents, old classmates, or new boosters around to make mid-tier bowl games a big deal to the larger public. Every game is a big deal to somebody. If it’s not a big deal to you personally, there are 784 other channels on the remote control.
Besides, the complaint about “small, nothing bowls” comes from an era in which college football was defined by powerhouses and pushovers. Dynasties like Clemson and Alabama still exist, but there are few true cupcakes in the FBS going into 2020. Even Charlotte, a recent victim of thrash-for-cash defeats, roared to the finish line this season.
California beat Washington, beat Stanford, and rattled Oregon in 2019. Illinois was written-off wholesale after another poor start that included losses to Eastern Michigan and Nebraska. But soon the Fighting Illini would upset Wisconsin, Purdue, and Michigan State in a tremendous autumn run at contention. Those who say they only care about the Top 25 are contradicting themselves not to pay attention to schools like Illinois and Cal – capable of ending any team’s stint in the Top 25 even in the worst of years. Last but not least, the Bears and the Illini will finish 2019-20 with more combined wins than losses, not bad for programs playing in the Power-5.
Who: California Golden Bears vs Illinois Fighting Illini
When: Monday, December 30th, 4 PM EST
Where: Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, CA
Lines: Cal (-6.5) vs Illinois (+6.5) / O/U Total: (43.5)
The Illini play sound defense and balanced offense, led by Michigan transfer QB Brandon Peters. Peters has a future NFL wide receiver in USC transfer Josh Imatorbhebhe (promise that’s the correct spelling) who posted a 4-178-2 line against Michigan State. The junior was on the receiving end of 8 of Peters’ 17 touchdowns this season, and has found pay dirt 5 times in Illinois’ last 5 games.
Fighting Illini will face another squad that had a season full of ups and downs in the 7-5 Cal Golden Bears. Head coach Justin Wilcox got California off to a 4-0 start highlighted by a 20-19 win against then-14th ranked Washington, but the Bears were soon mired at 4-4 after a 4-game losing streak. The Golden Bears were able to close the season winning 3 of 4 including The Big Game.
Marcel Dancy began the year as a featured Cal tailback. Dancy took just 7 carries 72 yards and found the end zone twice in the early-season upset of UW, but failed to get on track in the scrums to follow. Dancy eventually gave way to Christopher Brown Jr., who went on to lead the Bears in rushing in 2019. Brown Jr. found the end zone 3 times in Cal’s last 2 games, and ripped off 111 yards on 18 carries with 2 scores in the season finale against UCLA.
Thanks to a road-grating style of OL and coaches who actually practice what they preach, the Bears have been a run-first team in 2019. Issues with quarterback play and pass protection, however, might be less talked-about reasons for the focus on power offense. Chase Garbers and Devon Modster have taken turns at the helm for Cal with inconsistent results. We have not seen Modster since his 11-for-22 outing on November 16th in a 41-17 loss to USC, though Garbers finished the season on a high-note with the back-to-back victories. Statistically the latter QB’s good play down the stretch brought him up to a near-60% completion percentage, and a 10:3 TD/INT ratio.
Despite some limitations on the number of pass attempts, the Cal offensive line has allowed a dreadful 43 sacks in 2019.
Santa Clara makes a great postseason venue, and the Redbox Bowl is likely to be played in mild temperatures. It seems inviting for Power-5 offenses, and perhaps the weather forecast is helping the O/U up to (43.5) points too.
But it’s likely to go well for only 1 offense. Illinois was cold down the stretch, scoring only 20 points on Iowa and Northwestern in conference losses as Cal’s defense improved. What’s worse is that the Illini just didn’t mount much of a pass rush despite playing stubborn defense in late November. An inordinate amount of injuries are affecting the 2-deep along the front-7 and the old NFL hand coaching the team wants to stop the run first and worry about getting to the QB later. That’s fine, but it means Illinois can’t hit Cal where it hurts.
Take the Bears to cover (-6.5) points.