Finally, Florida

Dec 4, 2022

My birthday is a few days after Christmas. When I was a teenager, the holidays were simple for me. Christmas, then my birthday, then an Illini bowl game. A few days after my 16th birthday we played in the All American Bowl in Birmingham. A few days after my 17th birthday we played in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. A few days after my 18th birthday we played in the Hall Of Fame Bowl in Tampa. A few days after my 19th birthday we played in the John Hancock Bowl in El Paso. And a few days after my 20th birthday we played in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. Christmas, birthday, bowl game.

The two "big" bowls we played in through that stretch: the two Florida bowls. There were only 10 teams in the Big Ten back then (can you imagine?), and so it was simple. The winner of the Big Ten went to the Rose Bowl. Second place went to the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. Third place went to the Hall Of Fame Bowl in Tampa. If you were one of the top three teams in the Big Ten you played on New Years Day (or, on years where January 1st fell on a Sunday, you'd play on January 2nd to avoid the NFL). You'd turn on your TV on New Years Day and it was the Hall Of Fame Bowl, then the Citrus Bowl, then the Rose Bowl. The Big Ten's three best teams on display.

The "meaning" of those two Florida bowls faded a bit over the years for some. Once the BCS Championship Game was added, sometimes the winner of the Big Ten would go to that and the second place team would go to the Rose Bowl (that's how we got to the Rose Bowl in 2007). And now, with the "New Years Six" bowls, it's often that three Big Ten teams will go to NY6 games while the 4th-place team goes to Orlando and the 5th-place team goes to Tampa. What used to be second and third place is now fourth and fifth place.

But the Big Ten is now 14 teams, so the impact of the two NYD Florida bowl remains the same for me. Make one of those bowls and you're one of the five-best teams in the Big Ten. Top five out of 14 is pretty damn good.

And seemingly impossible for us. Want to know how many times we were in that top-5 between my 20th birthday and my 49th birthday? TWICE. Three decades rotating around the sun and we had a 1st place finish in 2001, a 2nd-place finish in 2007... and that's it. Every other season, the bowl selections deemed us 6th-best or worse.

I'm going to say that again because the full impact didn't hit you. The bowls choose teams in a certain order. From 1991 to 2021 (three full decades), here's when we were deemed to be top-5:

1st - 2001 (Sugar Bowl instead of Rose Bowl because Rose was the national championship game that year)
2nd - 2007 (Rose Bowl instead of Citrus Bowl because Ohio State went to the national championship game)
3rd - n/a
4th - n/a
5th - n/a

Three decades, one gold, one silver, 28 times finishing 6th or worse. Which meant we never once made the two Florida NYD bowls over those 30 years. The names have changed a lot - the Hall Of Fame Bowl became the Outback Bowl and is now the ReliaQuest Bowl - but the two Florida bowls kept on taking two Big Ten teams year after year. And we went three decades without being selected until...

2022 ReliaQuest Bowl
Tampa, Florida
Illinois (8-4) vs. #22 Mississippi State (8-4)

Happy birthday to me.

You know the best part about the ReliaQuest (formerly Outback) Bowl, right? Wait, of course you don't - we haven't been to one of these bowls in 30 years. The best part of the Outback Bowl is that it's the first bowl on. It gets an hour by itself where nothing else is on. You wake up on New Years Day (or, when NYD falls on a Sunday, on January 2nd) and it's the first game on. This year, on January 2nd, there are just four bowls: ReliaQuest, Citrus, Cotton, and Rose.

That means so much to me. Over the last dozen years I've written so many articles about bowl season and what it's like to stay home. I once compared it to my son leaving nose prints on the living room window when I wouldn't let him walk down to the park to play football with his friends (he had come home from school sick but was magically healed by 3:30). As his friends walked by, he stared longingly, just wanting to join them (like me looking at Iowa and Wisconsin the last few decades).

So to make one of the two FLORIDA bowls? To know that Johnny Newton could have a Jadaveon Clowney-like viral moment in this bowl game (Clowney blowing up that Michigan tailback happened in this game) a month from now? To know that this moment could happen on national TV while everyone is off work and watching the game at home because it's the only thing on? I might never stop smiling.

I'll say it again just to make sure everyone is tracking with me. Since the Hall Of Fame Bowl on January 1, 1991, here are the top three Illini bowl games:

  1. Rose Bowl (January 1, 2008)
  2. Sugar Bowl (January 1, 2002)
  3. ReliaQuest Bowl (January 2, 2022)

Remember all those articles I wrote about "Illini fans haven't had an 8-win football season or a Sweet 16 basketball season since I started blogging in 2009"? The stat we finally put to bed with the Northwestern win last Saturday? The reason I chose "eight regular season wins" for the football bar to clear was because of these two Florida bowls. 8-4 would get you in contention for Citrus or Outback. You'd play a (likely ranked) SEC team. You'd be on national television. You'd have a season to hang your hat on.

And here we are. It's official. It has happened. I'm gonna link the official tweet just so I can see it again when I go back to re-read this article tomorrow:

Illinois football. In one of the two Florida bowls. Against a ranked SEC team (and one we can beat). I can cover the bowl game, and then I can go out to the tailgate and watch the Rose Bowl with my friends.

Pinch me. And then slap me and scream "LET'S GOOOO" in my face. And then light a folding table on fire so I can jump on it.

I could write and write and write about this but I have to go catch this train from DC to New York City (where I get to watch my ranked basketball team try to beat #2 on Tuesday). So I'll just leave you with this...

This cements it. The eight wins mostly told the story, but this bowl selection writes it in stone. The top three Illini football seasons since I was a freshman in the fall of 1991:



jpbrown on December 4, 2022 @ 05:16 PM

Whatever negative emotions I’ve felt the last 2 months are gone. We’re back. I-L-L.

IllinifaninGopherland on December 4, 2022 @ 08:50 PM

This is so much fun.

Fido McCokefiend on December 4, 2022 @ 11:38 PM

April of 1989 - Drove to Seattle to see the Final Four

January of 1990 - Drove to Tampa to see the Citrus Bowl

Bowls all 4 years of my time at Illinois.

Wish I could be going to Tampa, so happy that you get to go!

Duce20 on December 6, 2022 @ 09:03 AM

Miss you on the boards Fido!

uilaw71 on December 5, 2022 @ 07:16 AM

My first attended Bowl vs an SEC opponent was Liberty. The loss hurt less when we learned how ill Bear was, and it definitely hurt less than those at Rose and Peach. Here’s hoping ReliaQuest begins a new trend of not only consistently bowling as a BIG top-5, but also winning in the post season!

TRC on December 5, 2022 @ 01:32 PM

After the Iowa game I planned a family trip to FL over New Years, secretly crossing my fingers tightly and dreaming of the Orange or Citrus Bowl. While that was not to be, I was THRILLED this morning to submit a ticket request to take my son and nephew to see the Illini in Tampa on Jan. 2. Every time I wear my Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl sweatshirts I am asked "what was the score of that game?" and I have to change the subject. I am looking forward to explaining what a "reliaquest bowl" is, and how we won it.

blackdeath on December 5, 2022 @ 07:55 PM

  1. Rose Bowl (January 1, 2008)
  2. Sugar Bowl (January 1, 2002)
  3. ReliaQuest Bowl (January 2, 2022)

Oops. Make that January 2, 2023 (makes the gap feel even longer!)

illinois81 on December 6, 2022 @ 12:47 PM

While I am still a little upset over the losses to IU, Purdue, and Michigan, and I would have loved to watch the Illini play in Indy, this is probably a better outcome for developmental reasons. We rose too high too fast for the 2002 Sugar and 2008 Rose bowls and got our wings scorched. I would like to see the beloved competitive in a matchup with another 8-4 team rather than overwhelmed by a stronger opponent. Here's to the ReliaQuest Bowl!

on July 3, 2023 @ 03:59 PM


Speak Your Mind

Please login or register to post comments on the IlliniBoard.

Post Preview