The Fighting Illini have been one of the best feel-good stories of the season, engineering the biggest turnaround in the country. Illinois' nine wins this season are seven more than the two games it won in 2006, marking the biggest recovery in school history and just the eighth time an Illini team has won nine games in a season. The Orange and Blue are bowl-eligible for the first time since 2001 and this appearance will be head coach Ron Zook's fourth bowl game in six years as a head coach.
For his efforts in orchestrating Illinois' turnaround, Zook was named Big Ten Coach of the Year on Nov. 19. He was able to take the Illini to the Rose Bowl this season largely because of Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Rashard Mendenhall, who has broken Illinois single-season records for rushing yards (1,526), rushing touchdowns (16) and total touchdowns (18) while ranking eighth nationally in rushing yards per game (127.17).
The offense has rushed for more than 3,000 yards for the first time in school history and has surpassed 5,000 total yards for just the third time ever. In addition to Mendenhall, wide receiver Arrelious Benn was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year after he broke Illinois' freshman receptions and receiving yards marks. Sophomore quarterback Juice Williams ran the offense proficiently, becoming the first Illini quarterback to rush for over 1,000 yards in his career and ranking in the school's all-time top-10 for total offense. Additionally, placekicker Jason Reda has the highest field-goal accuracy in the Big Ten at .938 (15-of-16).
Defensively, middle linebacker J. Leman was named a first-team All-American by the American Football Coaches Association after leading the Illini in tackles and leading the Big Ten in tackles for 16 of the last 19 weeks dating back to 2006. He will finish sixth on the Illinois all-time tackles list and was a Butkus Award semifinalist this season. Safety Kevin Mitchell and cornerback Vontae Davis rank third and sixth, respectively, in interceptions in the Big Ten, and the defense ranks 12th in the nation in sacks with 3.08 per game.
Illinois is the only Big Ten team to hold a flawless record in November and its four-game winning streak is the longest in the conference. The Illini hold a 3-1 record in the Rose Bowl, winning in 1947, 1952 and 1964 before falling in the 1984 game. The appearance is Illinois' first Rose Bowl berth since 1984, although they likely would have been selected for the 2001 contest had the Rose Bowl not been the host of the national championship game that season.