Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl will feature a matchup between the Illinois Fighting Illini (6-6) and Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (8-5) at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on Boxing Day, Dec. 26. Viewers can watch the NCAA football game online via live stream - free for subscribers - below.
Although both teams won just four games in 2013, it was a longshot for either of them to earn a bowl invite to Texas. In addition, Houston Bates, who used to be on the Illinois team, is now one of Louisiana Tech's starting defensive ends according to an Associated Press report.
"Playing with those guys was always a fun time, but playing against them, I really don't know how it can be better," Bates said. "It's not going to be like a hate matchup. It's going to be a fun one because I didn't leave those guys on bad terms."
Bates graduated from Illinois last spring and transferred closer to home at Louisiana Tech so his mother can visit every game of his final season. The Associated Press though it was an "ironic career finale for Bates."
"I'm proud of him. There were situations he wanted to move closer to his mother, totally understood," Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. "I'm in the student-athlete business here, so Houston Bates was everything I wanted, everything I asked him to be. So of course, I'd help him and release him."
Regarding Beckman's team, Mark Ross of Athlon Sports noted that the Illini managed to secure a spot in a bowl game for the first time since 2011. Although the team initially struggled in the conference play, they bounced back and stamped their ticket with a 47-43 win in Northwestern on Nov. 29.
"As a result, Beckman has Illinois in a bowl game for the first time since it beat UCLA 20-14 in the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl," Ross wrote.
The key to victory for Illinois, according to Ross, would involve the Illini using their starting quarterback Wes Lunt, an Oklahoma transfer. Despite the fact Lunt has only played in three of eight games due to a leg injury, the Illini will need him to have a productive offensive game against Louisiana State.
"All six of Illinois' most productive offensive games (yardage-wise) have been in ones Lunt has started, with an average of 444 total yards per game," Ross wrote. "Considering the Illini are ranked near the bottom nationally in rushing offense (117.1 ypg, 3.7 ypc), they need to get the most out of their passing game."
For Louisiana Tech, their game strategy may involve the use of Bates and Kenneth Dixon, who leads the Bulldogs with 1,236 rushing yards and 21 rushing touchdowns according to Athlon Sports. Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz commented on how valuable the former Illinois player has been on his team.
"He's just been a huge addition to our program," Holtz said in regards to Bates. "I know that Houston's going to have a lot of friends on the other side of the ball. But I'm glad in this game he's going to be wearing that Louisiana Tech logo on the side of his helmet."
Regardless of which team wins Friday's game, Bates transferred from Illinois to Louisiana for personal reasons. In addition to his father dying from leukemia, the Associated Press reported that his mom made it to every game he played with the Bulldogs.
"Losing my dad and not having him come to my games, it's really been special for her to come see all of them," Bates said.
Bates promised his dad that he would play college football, and the Associated Press noted that he fulfilled that promise too.
"It's been everything," Bates said. "He wasn't in the stands ... but I know he was watching over me."
Friday's game will be broadcasted on ESPN at 1 p.m. ET. While online viewers can stream the game through WatchESPN.com or via the WatchESPN app for various devices, both options require a cable subscription and login for an ESPN3 affiliated provider.