The Bears (7-5) are playing in their second straight bowl game after posting back-to-back losing seasons in 2016-17. The Illini (6-6) are playing in their first bowl game since 2014 — Illinois lost in the Heart of Dallas Bowl — and are looking for their first postseason win since 2011. That happened to be in this same bowl game, then known as the Fight Hunger Bowl, when they defeated UCLA.
Cal fell to TCU in last year's Cheez-It Bowl in one of the lowest-scoring bowl games in recent memory. This will be the first bowl game appearance for Illinois under Lovie Smith, who's finally turning this program around after three straight losing seasons. Questions about whether or not the long-time NFL coach could be successful in the collegiate ranks can be put aside for now, as this season has proven that Smith can win on the college gridiron.
This will essentially be a home game for California as Levi's Stadium is only an hour or so away from the Bears' Berkeley campus. These teams have talent on both sides of the ball which should make for an interesting game between programs that haven't played each other since 2005.
Redbox Bowl: California (7-5) vs. Illinois (6-6)
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 30 at 4 p.m. ET
Where: Levi's Stadium (Santa Clara, Calif.)
Spread: California -6.5
When California Has the Ball
The Golden Bears have two quarterbacks who have both been effective. Sophomore Chase Garbers and junior Devon Modster have collectively posted 2,205 passing yards, 410 rushing yards, and 18 touchdowns. Joining them in the backfield is sophomore running back Christopher Brown Jr., who can give defenses fits with his speed and agility. He's accounted for 943 yards from scrimmage with 11 combined touchdowns. The rest of Cal's offense is rounded out by a solid group of wide receivers in Nikko Remigio (34 receptions, 477 yards, 2 TDs), Jordan Duncan (25, 364, 2), Trevon Clark (21, 250, 2), and Kekoa Crawford (14, 243, 2).
Cal averages 20.1 points and 323.0 yards per game, both of which rank in the bottom 20 of the FBS. Lining up opposite of them will be an Illini defense headlined by linebackers Jake Hansen and Dele Harding, defensive linemen Oluwole Betiku Jr. and Jamal Milan, and defensive backs Sydney Brown, Stanley Green, and Nate Hobbs. Lovie Smith is known for his defensive acumen, and this year's Illini defense has recorded 22 sacks, 18 forced fumbles, 12 interceptions, and four defensive touchdowns.
When Illinois Has the Ball
The offense has been the most improved unit of the Fighting Illini program in 2019. Quarterback Brandon Peters, running backs Reggie Corbin, Dre Brown, and Ra'Von Bonner, along with wide receivers Josh Imatorbhebhe, Donny Navarro, and Ricky Smalling have accounted for 4,402 total yards and 47 touchdowns. They are a key reason why the Illini rank seventh in the Big Ten in scoring offense (27.3 ppg). Illinois went over the 30-point mark in six regular-season games, keyed by the ability to make explosive plays when needed. The Illini will face a tough test from a Cal defense led by linebacker Evan Weaver (172 tackles) that has held eight of its 12 opponents to 20 points or fewer and registered 34 sacks.
The Illini are 7-3 all-time against the Bears, and the teams have evenly split the last four meetings. This will be the first time that Illinois has played a Pac-12 team since losing consecutive games to Washington in 2013 and '14. However, The Illini are actually 2-3 in their last five games against Pac-12 teams, with the last win coming in that 2011 UCLA game. Cal's last go-round against the Big Ten came when they defeated Northwestern on the road in the 2014 season opener. The Golden Bears are 1-3 in their last four games against teams from the Big Ten.
I expect this game to be a back-and-forth affair for the most part. Both teams will score plenty and do enough on defense to keep their teams competitive. But this resurgent Illinois team will find a way to pull out a close win in the end.
Prediction: Illinois 24, California 23
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.