As expected, No. 6 Tennessee landed a New Year’s Six bid on Sunday, earning an at-large bid in the Orange Bowl. They’ll face the No. 7 Clemson Tigers, who clinched their ticket to Miami after winning the ACC Championship on Saturday night.
It’s Tennessee first trip to the Orange Bowl since Peyton Manning’s senior season — their first New Year’s Six bowl since the BCS National Championship game during the 1998 season. It’s not exactly what we had it mind three weeks ago, but it’s also not something we had in mind three months ago.
Tennessee now has a chance to cap off a special season in one of the sport’s biggest bowls. To do that, they’ll have to beat one of college football’s current true powerhouses — Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers. Sure, Clemson has taken a step back over the last two seasons, but that roster is still loaded, and it sure looked like they figured some things out on Saturday night at the quarterback position.
“It’s a tradition-rich program,” Josh Heupel said on Sunday. “They’ve had a ton of success, not just in past seasons but in this season, too. Obviously, finishing it out with an ACC championship. We have great respect for the quality of opponent. Coach Swinney has done a fantastic job with that program since he’s taken over.”
Down 7-0, Dabo made the move to bench DJ Uiagalelei. He turned to Cade Klubnick, and the Tigers turned it on. 39-10 was the final tally as the offense came to life. That loaded defense showed up and showed out too, shutting out North Carolina and Drake Maye in the second half.
“Obviously, you look at what they’ve done defensively year in and year out, one of the top in the country,” Heupel said. “Haven’t had a chance to follow up and watch in detail — just the personnel or the scheme. Can’t dive too much into that. Obviously, we’ll do that here in the coming days, and certainly over the next week.”
Clemson skated through a pretty easy schedule until they ran into a road game at Notre Dame, where they were blown out. Still, the Tigers had a shot at the College Football Playoff, but just like Tennessee, ended up losing to South Carolina.
Now 11-2, Clemson will finish against Tennessee, who won’t have Hendon Hooker and perhaps a few others on offense.
For Josh Heupel, it’s a bit of nostalgia. It’s a return to the sight where Heupel captured a national championship with Oklahoma as a player back in 2001, where the Sooners beat Florida State 13-2.
“Really excited about having an opportunity to lead a program in this football game,” Heupel said. “This game is extremely special to me — a lot of great memories. Really looking forward to that opportunity. Already have teammates that will be able to come to the ballgame, guys that shared the field with me. Really looking forward to that opportunity.”
Kickoff is set for December 30th at 8 p.m. ET. Clemson is a four-point favorite to open.