PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD/WYZZ) — Tim Simpson is beaming with pride.

The East Peoria High School grad played in four bowl games as a lineman at the University of Illinois and he’s excited to see the Illini back on a national stage.

“To play in a New Year’s game was big,” said Simpson, who played at Illinois from 1988-91. “To see this team playing meaningful games, late in November, having an impact on national championships and Big Ten championships is awesome.”

Illinois plays Mississippi State in the ReliaQuest Bowl on Jan. 2 in Tampa.

Simpson has memorabilia from when his Illinois teams were consistently a Big Ten title contender and he thinks Bret Bielema has this program headed in that direction. He feels there’s a buzz around the Illini which has been missing for a while.

And he’s not the former player who thinks that way.

“The Iowa game this year was probably one of the most electric Illinois football environments we’ve had in a decade,” said Farmington High School grad Tony Johnson. “Lot 31 where we tailgate was packed.”

Johnson was an Illini lineman from 1984-88. He hosted Simpson on his recruiting visit to Illinois.

“We had 100-120 (former players) there,” Simpson said. “A lot of excitement. Fun tailgating. It’s a great environment now.”

The Illini are headed to a New Year’s Bowl for the first time since 2008. The former players hope big bowl games are no longer just talking points about the past.

“I always joke that I want to have to make the decision of where to spend Christmas and New Year’s, I want Illinois to be a part of that,” said Johnson, who plans on attending the game in Tampa. “I haven’t had to make that decision for awhile. I am now.”