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Orange Bowl Preview: Can Tennessee hang with Clemson following key opt outs?

The Volunteers will look much different on Friday night.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Oklahoma vs Clemson Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in over 20 years, Tennessee will play in a New Year’s Six bowl game. The 10-2 Volunteers were one of the surprises of the season, storming out to an 8-0 start. Josh Heupel’s year two team reached the No. 1 ranking in the first version of the College Football Playoff rankings before ultimately falling to Georgia and South Carolina in November.

Still, not many had a ten win season projected for Tennessee, and they have a chance to finish strong against a premier opponent in the Orange Bowl. Unfortunately for the Volunteers, the story coming in is more about who won’t be available to play.

The Tennessee offense will look completely different against Clemson on Friday night. Joe Milton will be under center following Hendon Hooker’s ACL tear against South Carolina. Milton won’t have his top two receivers either, as Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt both opted out. That leaves Bru McCoy, Ramel Keyton and some youth.

Meanwhile, Clemson will be close to full strength. They won’t have injured linebacker Trenton Simpson, and standout defensive end Myles Murphy has decided to opt out.

Here’s the full opt-out picture heading into this one.

Tennessee Opt-Outs

WR Jalin Hyatt

WR Cedric Tillman

LB Jeremy Banks

OUT (Injury): QB Hendon Hooker

Clemson Opt-Outs

DE Myles Murphy

TRANSFER: QB DJ Uiagalelei

OUT (Injury): LB Trenton Simpson

Storylines, Key Stats

Dabo Swinney has turned to Cade Klubnik at quarterback, officially. Uiagalelei was benched during the ACC Championship, and Klubnik came in and instantly gave the Tigers a shot in the arm. He led Clemson to an easy win, and the writing was on the wall. The Klubnik era began on that night in Charlotte, and it continues on Friday in Miami.

Of course, joining him in the backfield will be standout running back Will Shipley. Now finishing up his sophomore year, Shipley is well over 1,000 yards. He’s scored 15 times on the ground, and added 221 receiving yards.

“Everyone that we’ve talked to that’s faced those guys already, they say that he’s better than advertised,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “You get in the game, he’s tough to tackle, has good vision, good balance and body control. Then you see it. He’s broke off a bunch of big runs against just about everybody he’s played. He’s definitely got our attention. We understand for us to be successful, we’ll have to do a really good job trying to contain him.”

Tennessee’s defensive issues have come in the secondary, but the run defense has been solid all year. Tennessee ranks 20th against the run, but 127th against the pass. The Volunteers have been banged up in the secondary all season long, and plenty of questions still surround that group for this matchup.

An opt-out that hasn’t been talked about as much is starting middle linebacker Jeremy Banks, who had his issues off the field but was a difference maker on the field. He (now infamously) missed the South Carolina game and Tennessee was completely out of sorts all night long on that side of the ball. They’ve had a month to prepare to play without him, but that’s going to be a factor for Tim Banks’ group.

Clemson’s 25th ranked defense will be a massive test for Joe Milton. We’ve talked about it a lot, but Milton doesn’t have much starting experience at all. Playing without his top two receivers won’t make things any easier, either.

No Myles Murphy or Trenton Simpson certainly will help, but Tennessee is going to have to find a way to run on Clemson’s 10th ranked rush defense. The last time we saw the Volunteers, they were running through Vanderbilt 50 yards at a time with Jabari Small, Jaylen Wright and Dylan Sampson. They’re in for a different challenge in Miami.

“You’ve seen them just attack other offenses,” quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle said. “That’s one of the things that I actually respect about what they do, is they don’t sit back and let the offense and dictate what they want to do. They come after them and try to force the offense’s hand to play how they want them to play. It’s actually been a unique challenge with all the different stuff they’re going to show you on tape, and like I said, I’m excited to go see what it looks like on Friday night.”

And speaking of a different challenge, this will be Heupel’s first game without right-hand man Alex Golesh. Tennessee’s offensive coordinator left for the South Florida job, a well-deserved opportunity after lighting up the SEC the past two seasons. Obviously Tennessee has a play-caller on staff in Josh Heupel himself, but it will be a different dynamic on gameday. Quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle will see an increased role from the press box as the staff moves forward without Golesh.

What are the odds?

This line has bounced around like a ping pong ball since opening. Clemson got the nod initially, with the oddsmakers installing them as four point favorites. Through all the news, opt-outs and injuries, the line grew as high as Clemson -7. Since then, Tennessee has found some support.

As of Wednesday evening, Tennessee is a five point underdog, per DraftKings Sportsbook.

Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. ET on Friday on ESPN, live from Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida.

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See for details.