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2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl Preview

Illinois Fighting Illini vs UCLA Bruins

A bowl game never felt as empty as the one that will be played in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve. Even a bunch of flakes or toasted oats might feel uncomfortable being anywhere near this particular bowl bash on America’s West Coast.

It’s worth being very up front about the second 2011 installment of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, which played its inaugural game in January of this year. The players from the UCLA Bruins and the Illinois Fighting Illini should fight hard to wipe away the taste of disappointment which pervades both locker rooms after seasons that have gone so horribly wrong. The young men who will contest this game should treat it as an opportunity to prove their worth on a nationally-televised stage. Yet, with that having been said, it’s impossible to avoid the notion that this bowl game carries an undercurrent of futility and even sadness unmatched by any of the other 34 postseason games in major college football.

The first thing to realize about this contest is that it is a far cry from the 1984 Rose Bowl matchup between UCLA and Illinois. When the Bruins and Illini locked horns nearly 28 years ago in Pasadena, California, they both bore the banner of conference champions. This time, their bowl meeting is shrouded in a very different prevailing mood. For so many reasons, the “Fight Hunger” label attached to this event is unfortunately yet undeniably appropriate on deeper, more metaphorical levels.

UCLA and Illinois really are starving for success. The Bruins continue to linger in the shadow of the USC program in Los Angeles. The memory of the school’s last Pac-10 (now Pac-12) football title in 1998 fades more and more as the years go by. Rick Neuheisel – interestingly enough, the quarterback for the Bruins in that ’84 Rose Bowl win over Illinois – was hired to change the trajectory of the program, but after four regular seasons marked by mediocrity, he was fired. UCLA has not found a replacement for Neuheisel at press time, making this bowl a very uncertain occasion for the Bruins.

Amazingly enough, the situation facing Illinois is just as unstable. The Illini enjoyed one really good season under Ron Zook in 2007, but the other six seasons didn’t amount to anything, and as a result, Steve Spurrier’s former successor at Florida was fired as the head coach in Champaign. Illinois has also failed to find a new coach at press time, so for the moment, UCLA and Illinois are coachless teams.

Just how uniquely desperate are these two teams? UCLA is 6-7 due to its loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game last Friday. The Bruins absorbed a 50-0 loss to USC and have no reason to carry any confidence into San Francisco’s AT&T Park. Illinois, however, can tell a story as depressing as UCLA’s. The Illini are the first team in the history of the Football Bowl Subdivision to start the season 6-0 and then lose six straight games to finish at 6-6. These teams’ problems aren’t the same, but they’re both stuck in the same pit of misery.

This game is little more than a chance for one team to leave 2011 with a reminder of what winning feels like. The Fight Hunger Bowl is really the “Fight Defeat Bowl.”

By: Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer

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