Illinois (6-6) vs. Louisiana Tech (8-5)
Dec. 26, 1 p.m. ET (ESPN)
• Reason to watch: One of the country’s most productive tailbacks will look to add another bullet point to his résumé. Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth Dixon set a national freshman record by scoring 28 touchdowns in 2012 (topping Marshall Faulk’s 23 as a freshman at San Diego State in 1991), a total that led the nation that season. The 5-foot-10 junior has 21 rushing touchdowns this fall, fifth nationally. He set school and Conference USA records for longest run when he broke loose for a 99-yard score in a 48-20 win over Louisiana-Lafayette on Sept. 6.
Dixon enters the bowl game on a hot streak. He has 10 touchdowns in his last four outings, including three against Marshall in the Conference USA championship on Dec. 6. Those scores gave him the school record of 59 touchdowns. Next up: Dixon is just five yards away from Daniel Porter’s program record of 3,352 career rushing yards, a mark that he could snap on his first play from scrimmage.
• Keep an eye on: Illinois’ quarterback situation. Sophomore Wes Lunt, a transfer from Oklahoma State, won a three-player competition for the starting job before the season. In his first four games he completed 66 percent of his attempts with 11 passing touchdowns, helping the Fighting Illini start 3-1. But he missed a game at Nebraska and fractured his fibula in his return against Purdue on Oct. 4, knocking him out of three more games. He has been ineffective since coming back: He went just 22-of-42 in matchups with Iowa and Penn State.
Enter senior backup Reilly O’Toole, who replaced Lunt to lead Illinois past Penn State and piloted the team to a 47-33 win over Northwestern in the regular-season finale. Neither quarterback will scare Louisiana Tech, but an effective showing from one is necessary for Illinois to stay competitive.
• Did you know: The Big Ten is winless in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Granted, it’s a small sample size. The former TicketCity Bowl was first played in 2011, after the Cotton Bowl lost its namesake game to the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Big Ten sent representatives to the first three Heart of Dallas Bowl games, and each lost: Northwestern in ’11, Penn State in ’12 and Purdue in ’13.
• Final analysis: What’s Louisiana Tech’s mindset? The Bulldogs closed out the season with a 26-23 loss to Marshall in the Conference USA title game. They led by seven points entering the fourth quarter and didn’t trail until Marshall’s Rakeem Cato hit Deon-Tay McManus for a touchdown with 1:50 remaining. (The Bulldogs were without five starters who had been declared academically ineligible.) Illinois ended the year with three wins in five games to become bowl eligible, a push that was enough to save coach Tim Beckman’s job. Still, Louisiana Tech is better if its mindset is right. The Bulldogs have the nation’s No. 13 scoring offense (37.5 points per game), while Illinois has the No. 108 scoring defense (33.9 points per game). Louisiana Tech also won its last clash with the Illini, 52-24 in 2012.
• The pick: Louisiana Tech 35, Illinois 24