Cal vs. Illinois: Redbox Bowl preview and picks against the spread

Cal (7-5) vs. Illinois (6-6)

Location: Santa Clara, California | When: Dec. 30 (4 p.m. ET) | TV: Fox | Line: Cal -5.5

HOW THESE TEAMS GOT HERE

Cal: The Bears started 4-0 with wins over Washington and Ole Miss in the season’s first four weeks. Then Cal fell to 4-4 with losses to Arizona State, Oregon, Oregon State and Utah in its next four games. 

No, Cal didn’t follow that up with another four-game win streak. The Bears beat Washington State to stop the losing streak and then got blown out by USC. A winning season was secured, however, with victories over Stanford and UCLA in the final two weeks. 

Cal LB Evan Weaver has 177 tackles in 2019. (Photo by David Madison/Getty Images)

Illinois: The Illini opened the season with wins over two of the worst programs at the top level of college football in Akron and UConn. Four losses followed, including a defeat to Eastern Michigan in Week 3.

Things got a lot better on Oct. 19. That’s the day Illinois took down then-No. 6 Wisconsin 24-23 in one of the biggest upsets of the season. That game spurred a four-game win streak that also included a win over Michigan State. That victory put Illinois at six wins and made them bowl eligible for the first time since 2014.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Cal QB Chase Garbers: Cal’s four-game losing streak was not-so-coincidentally timed with Garbers’ absence as he suffered a shoulder injury in the Arizona State loss on Sept. 27. Cal was 6-2 (counting the Arizona State game) when Garbers saw the field and 1-3 without him. 

Garbers is 109-of-184 passing for 1,500 yards with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions this season. Cal’s other quarterbacks have combined to throw for under 800 yards with five touchdowns and six interceptions. 

Illinois wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe has nine receiving touchdowns in 2019. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Illinois WR Josh Imatorbhebhe: This is a bit of a risky pick as the USC transfer is a game-time decision after he missed the season-ending loss to Northwestern with an injury. His participation will be a huge boost to an Illinois offense that doesn’t have much explosively. Imatorbhebhe is the team’s leading receiver with 33 catches for 634 yards and nine scores. No other Illinois wide receiver has more than 24 catches or 268 receiving yards.

NFL DRAFT PROSPECT

Cal LB Evan Weaver: Cal’s best 2020 prospect, redshirt senior S Ashtyn Davis, will not play in the game after undergoing a minor surgical procedure. So we’ll go with a more tricky study in Weaver, who has gained national notoriety for his brash style and high tackle totals. He has 177 tackles and has notched at least 21 tackles in three different games.

NFL scouts are not enamored with his pro fit, as he can struggle in space and might not be a top-shelf blitzer (despite transitioning from defensive end). But against a run-heavy team such as the Illini, Weaver could put some more positive tape into scouts’ hands

— Eric Edholm

WHAT’S ON THE LINE

Cal: A victory for the Bears would be the first Cal bowl win since the 2015 Armed Forces Bowl and just the second in the last 11 years. Yeah, Cal has only won one bowl game since the 2008 Emerald Bowl. Though, to be fair to the Bears, this is just the fourth bowl appearance since that game.

Illinois: A win for the Illini gives Illinois its first winning season since a 7-6 campaign in 2011 that ended in the Fight Hunger Bowl. That was also Illinois’ last bowl win and it came under the watch of interim coach Vic Koenning. He was the team’s coach for the bowl game after Ron Zook got fired.  

PICKS

Nick Bromberg: Cal -5.5

Sam Cooper: Illinois +5.5

Picks from the Yahoo Sports College Podcast

Pat Forde: Cal -6.5

Pete Thamel: Cal -6.5

Dan Wetzel: Cal -6.5

Sean Sullivan: Cal -6.5

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.