NCF Nation: 2011-Kraft-Fight-Hunger-Preview

The Kraft Fighting Hunger Bowl features two teams that fired their coaches, but that doesn't mean neither will show up and play hard. Not necessarily, at least.

WHO TO WATCH: UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince. This is almost certainly Prince's last game running the Bruins' run-first pistol offense. Next year under new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, the Bruins will be spreading the field and throwing all over the place. Still, considering that interim coach Mike Johnson is more of a pro-style offensive coordinator, it wouldn't be surprising to see fewer QB keepers and more passes. And Prince, a junior, can make a statement to his new coaches about who should be the starting signal-caller in 2012.

WHAT TO WATCH: The mood. Illinois lost its final six games and fired Ron Zook. UCLA lost its final regular-season game to rival USC 50-zip and fired Rick Neuheisel, then subsequently needed a waiver from the NCAA to play in a bowl game after finishing with a losing record. Both teams suspended players after the regular season ended due to academic or behavior issues. With two interim coaches, and two staffs that aren't fully invested in the program going forward, it's likely one or both teams will be sloppy and uninspired. Things could get ugly. The question is whether ugly describes both teams imploding or just one.

WHY TO WATCH: Because it's college football and college football is awesome. Because it's hard not to slow down and rubberneck a traffic accident. Because there will be a quiz on this game on the Pac-12 blog on Tuesday, and the person who gets the most answers right wins $1 zillion. Maybe.

PREDICTION: Illinois 20, UCLA 14: Both teams enter amid down circumstances. Both teams have damaging player suspensions/ineligibility. The difference is that, despite everything, Illinois does something well — play defense — and UCLA does not.
One team lost its final six games and fired its coach. The other team finished with a losing record and fired its coach. Still, they're both going to play a bowl game in San Francisco, and one team has to win it. Let's take a look at the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl essentials:

WHO TO WATCH: Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus. The junior leads the nation with 14.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles. He showed up on everybody's All-America team and will almost certainly head to the NFL after this game. So he may be primed to go out with a bang against a UCLA offensive line that is decent but not overpowering. Bruins tackle Jeff Baca may need some help containing the explosive Mercilus off the edge.

WHAT TO WATCH: The Illini defense has been strong all season, but can the offense generate anything? After starting the season well, Illinois averaged just 11 points per game in its six straight losses to end the year. The offensive line was a mess, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase appeared to lose his confidence -- not surprising, considering how little time he was given to throw. Leading rusher Jason Ford is academically ineligible for the bowl, and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino bolted for Arkansas, leaving quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm in charge of the playcalling. If Scheelhaase can get some protection, he has one of the top receiving threats in the country in A.J. Jenkins. But that's a big if.

WHY TO WATCH: Well, you need something to do while getting ready to go out for New Year's Eve, right? We can't pretend this isn't one of the least appealing bowl matchups, given the complete lack of momentum or enthusiasm on either side. But, hey, it's still a Pac-12 vs. Big Ten meeting in California, even if this is about as far away from the Rose Bowl as you can get. Both teams have talent and tradition, and both will be looking to impress their new incoming head coaches.

PREDICTION: Illinois 17, UCLA 9. I have little confidence in the Illini's ability to do much offensively. But the Illinois defense will be the best unit on the field and should be motivated to play for Vic Koenning, the defensive coordinator/interim head coach who is leaving after the game. It probably won't be pretty -- except for the background shots of San Francisco.