When the ReliaQuest Bowl matchup was set on the first Sunday in December, Mike Leach was Mississippi State’s head coach, Ryan Walters was Illinois’ defensive coordinator and both teams’ rosters were teeming with stars.
But almost nothing looks the same as the No. 24 Bulldogs (8-4) and Fighting Illini (8-4) prepare to play on the first Monday in 2023 in Orlando.
Leach, 61, passed away Dec. 12 due to complications from a heart condition. The 21-year head coach, who posted a record of 158-107 for Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State, suffered what was termed a “personal health issue” at his home on Dec. 11. The Bulldogs promoted 36-year-old defensive coordinator Zach Arnett to head coach for the bowl game and beyond.
“We have tremendous guys in this program,” Arnett said at the team’s Signing Day news conference. “They are excited for this opportunity … it has been expressed and they understand that we are doing exactly what Coach Leach would have wanted. There is no better way for us to honor him and show respect to him and his family than to go out there and play a complete game and compete like he would have expected us to.”
“Mike and I were really, really good friends,” Illinois head coach Bret Bielema said on SiriusXM. “And this whole dynamic of this bowl game is at a level that no one can really describe. I can’t imagine the players’ emotions and coaches’ emotions on their side of the ball.”
Bielema signed a new contract in December that boosts his salary to $6 million through 2028. Among his first tasks, aside from the ReliaQuest Bowl, is to fill three spots on his staff.
Walters, who directed the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense (12.3 points per game), was hired as Big Ten West rival Purdue’s head coach on Dec. 13. Walters took associate head coach Kevin Kane, running backs coach Cory Patterson and multiple team analysts with him to West Lafayette, Ind.
Bielema promoted defensive backs coach Aaron Henry to defensive coordinator — and Henry will have to piece together a secondary to face Mississippi State’s “Air Raid” offense that doesn’t include All-American cornerback Devon Witherspoon and All-Big Ten safety Sydney Brown.
Both declared for the NFL draft and opted not to play in the bowl game — as has Sydney’s twin brother, Chase, who finished the regular season as the nation’s No. 2 rusher with 1,643 yards.
Mississippi State must deal with its own roster shortages as 10 players moved into the transfer portal. Sophomore wideout Rara Thomas, who led the Bulldogs with 626 receiving yards (on 44 catches with seven touchdowns) announced his transfer to Georgia on Dec. 22. Dillon Johnson, the team’s No. 2 rusher with 488 yards, announced his departure four days before Leach’s death.
This marks the 13th consecutive season Mississippi State has capped its season with a bowl game — and the Bulldogs hold a 7-5 record since 2010.
Illinois hasn’t played in the postseason since its loss in the 2019 Redbox Bowl. The Illini are searching for their first victory since the 2011 Fight Hunger Bowl, when defensive coordinator/interim coach Vic Koenning directed a 20-14 win over UCLA after the firing of Ron Zook.
–Field Level Media