Illinois coach Ron Zook has been to a number of bowl games in his long career, and he feels the Texas Bowl ranks with the best of them.
"It is an unbelievable venue, and these people are unbelievable. I think our guys are gonna love this. Illini Nation's gonna love it. It's really very first class. The way they are running this thing, you can tell it's a first class organization. They've done this with the fan in mind and with the players in mind.
Baylor fans are purchasing tickets in large numbers. This is their first bowl game in 16 years, so Bear head coach Art Briles understands the excitement.
"When you save up your pennies in a jar for 16 years, you've got a little bit of change in there. Our people have been waiting, saving, hoping, dreaming. The next thing you know BAM! It's a reality, and they're ready."
Zook leaves no doubt this game is not being played at a neutral site despite Waco's distance from Houston. He hopes Illini fans will support the team and help counter Baylor advantages.
"This is not a neutral site, not even close. It's warm down here. I hope the Illini Nation can support us like they did for the Rose Bowl. First of all, there's an awful lot of things going on down here. Reliant Stadium is an unbelievable facility. We're playing a tough, very good football team; it's gonna be a great matchup."
Reliant Stadium holds 70,000 fans, and over 55,000 tickets have been sold. Illinois has an allotment of 12,000 and expects to sell them all. But most everyone else will be supporting the Bears. In fact, one drawing card for choosing Baylor for this game is the great impression Baylor fans made when their basketball team played in Reliant Stadium during the NCAA Tournament last spring.
"I had a first hand view of it," Briles reminded. "I said, 'These people are ready.' It helped inspire us over the spring and summer to get to where we are now."
Baylor's situation reminds of when Illinois was invited to the Liberty Bowl in 1982. They hadn't been to a bowl in 19 years, and the fans were tremendously excited. Bear fans are no less thrilled to be back in the bowl business according to Briles.
"I'm grateful that our people are excited. We should be because we haven't had a chance to feel that way for a long time. All of a sudden, there's another present under the tree that's got our name on it."
Briles has great respect for the Illinois program.
"I see a team with a bunch of guys that play real hard. I see a couple of dangerous rushers, their quarterback I think is very dangerous. Great special teams, a lot of variety. Defensively, big guys that can move.
"They're just a good football team. Anytime you go into Penn State and win 33-13, not many teams do that to Penn State. That ain't something that happens every day. If you're looking for a showcase win for the season, I know where to start."
Zook is equally impressed with Baylor.
"First of all their offense. They've done a great coaching job, there's no question there. They're gonna get yards, they're gonna get points. The excitement this program has generated is just like ours. These are two good football programs. If you look back to last year and then this year, they're very similar. I think it's gonna be a heck of a ball game."
Zook looks forward to all the pomp and circumstance a bowl game provides. He and Briles are both convinced they will be well cared for in Houston.
"This bowl is very well organized. We've just got to do what they've laid out for us. I'm very impressed. We'll get down here Christmas day and go to work the next day."