Two teams trying to build for the future, Illinois and Baylor meet in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 29.

 

Just like Illinois, Baylor is a rebuilding college football program. Just like Illinois, Baylor started strong.

Then things fell apart at the end of the season. When Illinois meets Baylor in the Texas Bowl in Houston on Dec. 29 (5 p.m., ESPN), the two teams combined for six losses in their last seven games, but they get one last chance to roll into next year.

"They're very similar to us,'' Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. "They're trying to pull their program up. Both of us have made strides by getting to a pretty good bowl game.

"Every program has to start somewhere. You look at teams that don't make it to bowl games. Next year, there's something that leads them to that next level. What do they do now? Here's our opportunity. What are we going to do right now that takes us to that next level?''

Illinois (6-6 overall, 4-4 in the Big Ten) makes its first bowl appearance since the 2007 season and fourth in the last 16 seasons. Illinois hasn't won a bowl game since the Micronpc.com Bowl in 1999 under former coach Ron Turner. The Illini lost three of their last four games, including the 25-23 defeat at Fresno State Friday. 

"It gives us an opportunity to go back to work and continue our season,'' Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "I don't think there's any question (the Illini) are excited.''

Playing in Reliant Stadium, the home of the NFLs Houston Texans and the site of the Final Four in April, Illinois will get prime exposure in the only bowl game that time slot, but the Illini defense must also rebound or be exposed by the high-powered Bears. For the third straight bowl game, the Illini play a 'home' team after facing USC in the Rose Bowl and LSU in the Sugar Bowl. Baylor is located in Waco, Texas, 188 miles from Houston.

"It's definitely a benefit for Baylor,'' said Bears coach Art Briles. "If you've got two pieces of pie and you like pecan pie better than apple pie, you're probably going to eat pecan pie. If you have an opportunity to stay in Texas and play a bowl game, we have an advantage, and we need to make sure we take full advantage of what's in front of us.''

With their first winning season since 1995, the Bears snapped a 16-year bowl drought and posted a 7-5 record overall and 4-4 in the Big 12. Baylor won seven of its first nine games, including wins over Texas and Kansas State, but ended the regular season with losses to Big 12 south co-champs Oklahoma State (55-28), Texas A&M (42-30) and Oklahoma (53-24).

The 30-22 victory at Texas on Oct. 30 gave Baylor its fourth Big 12 win, the most by the school in the 15-year history of the conference. Baylor also reached No. 22 in the AP poll, its highest ranking since 1991.

Behind speedy quarterback Robert Griffin III and the spread offense run by Briles, Baylor ranked 12th nationally in total offense 478.5 yards per game) and 29th in scoring offense (32.6 points per game). How fast is Griffin? He enrolled in college after graduating from high school a semester early. As a 17-year-old on the Baylor track team that spring, Griffin won the Big 12 title and finish third at the NCAA championships in the 400-meter hurdles.

After season-ending knee injury three games into last season, Griffin bounced back and ranked seventh nationally in total offense (315.5).

"We've played some pretty good offenses and pretty good quarterbacks,'' Zook said. "It's important we get back to work. We've not played quite as well at the end of the year (defensively) as we did at the beginning of the year.''

A pioneer in bringing the spread offense to Texas High School football, Briles led Stephenville to four state championships -- two behind a running game and two later behind a wide-open passing scheme. He served under Mike Leach at Texas Tech, then took over as head coach at the University of Houston, where he spent three seasons with the Cougars as a split end.

His playing career there ended following his junior season, when he learned after playing SMU his parents and an aunt were killed in a car wreck on the way to the game. Briles is 15-21 in three seasons at Baylor.