At a time when Chicago resident and president-elect Barack Obama speaks of bringing a much-needed playoff system to college football, two Illinois teams square off Saturday with major bowl implications in the final battle for the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk.
Illinois needs a win to become bowl-eligible and give itself an opportunity for a second straight post season appearance. It would also break a 16 year drought of consecutive bowl seasons.
Northwestern, which has secured its first bowl trip since 2005, will try and upgrade their holiday destination. The Wildcats' best bowl possibilities are either the Outback or Alamo Bowl. The winner of this "Rivalry Saturday" battle also gains the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk Trophy. Since the spoils were awarded to the victor in 1945, Illinois holds a 32-27-2 series lead.
"It's our rivalry game. There's a trophy missing in our trophy case. Last year we went down to Champaign and they took it to us," Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said about the Illini beating NU 41-22 last year.
This year, Illinois has performed FAR below expectations as they head into the season's final contest in "play-in game" mode. Win and they'll likely get a bottom-tier bowl berth. Lose and they'll be home for the holidays.
Last week, the Illini lost to #10 Ohio State in a game that was a perfect microcosm of Illinois' season. They displayed the top-tier talent they possess in out-gaining the Buckeyes by more than 100 yards, yet lost the game by 10 points due to turnovers, terrible coaching decisions, boneheaded mistakes, horrendous run defense and terrible special teams play that have plagued them all season.
The most consistently bright spot this Champaign campaign has been quarterback Juice Williams (Big Ten leader in total offense at 326 ypg), and the unit he leads which is first in the conference in passing (274.5 ypg) and total offense (448.3 ypg).
"He's grown exponentially, playing the best football of his career," Fitz said of Juice.
The Big Ten Network will televise this game, kicking off at 2:30. Good tickets still available (847-491-CATS or NUsports.com)