Illinois (6-6) vs. Baylor (7-5)Dec. 29, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Reason to watch: This is one of the bowl season's best matchups of offensive stars. Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III has become a more effective passer in his second full season, improving on his yardage, completion percentage, touchdowns and quarterback rating. But most importantly, the former All-America hurdler has learned to pick his spots when it comes to taking off from the pocket. He has 40 fewer rushing attempts this season than in 2008 (he missed nine games in '09 with a knee injury), but still has just as many games with at least 59 yards rushing (six). Illinois counters with All-Big Ten first-team running back Mikel Leshoure, whose 330-yard day against Northwestern was the highest single-game total in the nation this season. Leshoure ranks seventh in FBS with 126.8 yards per game and needs 169 yards to break Rashard Mendenhall's single-season Illini record.
Keep an eye on: Which struggling defense puts up a fight in a potential shootout. Baylor allowed 7.2 points per game in its first four wins, but gave up 50 points per game during a three-game skid to close the season. Most alarming has been Baylor's inability to slow down prolific rushing attacks. The Bears allowed TCU to run for 291 yards and Oklahoma State to rush for 290, which does not bode well heading into a matchup against Leshoure and the nation's No. 13 running game (242.3 yards per game). Meanwhile, the Illini allowed almost 40 points per game in dropping three of their last four. They've been average against the pass, allowing 19 passing touchdowns heading into a matchup with Baylor's 20th-ranked aerial attack.
Did you know: It's been a year of historical proportions for the Bears, who are in the postseason for the first time since the 1994 Alamo Bowl. After suffering through 14 consecutive losing seasons and 30 straight Big 12 losses, Baylor posted its first seven-win season since the end of the Southwest Conference in 1995. The Bears also reached four Big 12 wins for the first time in that span and ended a 12-game skid to Texas. Now Baylor needs to overcome one last bit of unfortunate history, as the Bears are 2-9-1 all-time against Big Ten teams.
Final analysis: The way these defenses have played, we're likely headed for a shootout. Griffin has thrown 11 touchdowns of 39 yards or more, and Baylor is going to put up points with him at the controls. If Illinois gets behind, it'll need to rely on redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase going toe-to-toe with Griffin. Scheelhaase has made strides this season, but still ranks ninth in the Big Ten in passing efficiency.
The pick: Baylor 37, Illinois 31
SI.com NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline shares his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup:
Baylor: OL Danny Watkins -- The former Canadian fire fighter is turning into one of the better stories of the 2011 draft as he flies up the boards. He's physically strong and fundamentally sound. Scouts project the college tackle to offensive guard in the NFL. Grade: Second- to third-round prospect.
Illinois: RB Mikel Leshoure* -- Leshoure's powerful running style reminds many of former Illini star Rashard Mendenhall, a first round choice in 2008. Leshoure is a bruising back who punishes opponents on the inside every time he touches the ball, but he lacks Mendenhall's speed. Leshoure would be a solid fit for a power running offense. Grade: Fourth-round prospect.
You May Like
Sign Up for our Newsletter
Don't get stuck on the sidelines! Sign up to get exclusives, daily highlights, analysis and more—delivered right to your inbox!