Change in polls puts Illini in Dallas for a bowl game

Illinois’ Earnest Thomas III carries the Land of Lincoln trophy after the game against Northwestern at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. on Saturday. The Illini won 47-33.

Illini football fans breathed a collective sigh of relief Sunday when the College Football Playoff committee moved an idle Mississippi State above an idle Michigan State in its final rankings. Mississippi State is pegged for the Capital One Orange Bowl, while the Spartans are heading to the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.

The decision had huge ramifications for the Illini and the Big Ten. The Big Ten’s new agreement with the Orange Bowl pairs an ACC team against the highest-ranked nonconference champion from either the Big Ten, SEC or Notre Dame.

But there is a clause stating that if a Big Ten team makes the Orange Bowl, the conference would give up its spot in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. Thus, if the Spartans went to the Orange Bowl, the Big Ten would have been stuck with more bowl-eligible teams than bowls available.

For whatever reason, the committee swapped two teams, neither of which played over the weekend, and Illinois is now tabbed for the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl to play Louisiana Tech on Dec. 26.

The matchup is an intriguing one and one we saw not long ago.

Louisiana Tech beat Illinois 52-24 at Memorial Stadium in 2012 behind a high-powered offense. That Bulldogs unit put together a 9-3 campaign and was in the national rankings for five weeks. Oddly enough, they happened to get snubbed from a bowl that year.

But these teams are vastly different from what they were two years ago. Illinois didn’t have much of an offense in 2012, when it went 2-10 in coach Tim Beckman’s first year. Louisiana Tech lost coach Sonny Dykes to California and picked up Skip Holtz in his place.

Illinois will also be lining up opposite a familiar face in Houston Bates. The former Illini defensive lineman transferred to Louisiana Tech for his senior season. Bates graduated from Illinois in May, making him eligible to play without sitting out a season. He started all 12 games for Illinois in 2013.

It’s hard to know what to expect from the Illini in their first bowl appearance since 2011. But the Illini seemed to play their best football in their last two games — wins over Penn State and Northwestern.

The 8-5 Bulldogs really didn’t have any impressive wins. They did lead 12-1 Marshall with less than two minutes remaining in the Conference USA championship game on Saturday, but couldn’t pull it out.

Expect a lot of points on their end. Quarterback Cody Sokol threw for more than 3,000 yards and 29 touchdowns on the year. Three times Louisiana Tech surpassed 50 points this season. This game could be a test for the Illini defense, or it might be a shootout — a test to see if the offense can keep up with the Bulldogs’.

At the very least, the extra practice time is huge for the developing freshmen and sophomores. It couldn’t have been fun having to sweat it out Sunday after all the celebrating the Illini did following the Northwestern win.

But it doesn’t matter anymore. Illini fans can forget any fears of being left out of the postseason and make plans to stay in Dallas on Christmas.

Sean is a senior in Media. He can be reached at sphammo2

@dailyillini.com and on Twitter

@sean_hammond.