Orange Bowl – Key players, X factors for Tennessee, Clemson

There is no truth to the rumor that Shane Beamer will perform the opening coin toss for this year’s Capital One Orange Bowl. This is only the fourth time Clemson and Tennessee have met in football in the past 75 years.

Were it not for Beamers South Carolina Gamecocks, either the Tigers or the Vols could easily have been in the college football playoffs. South Carolina shocked Tennessee 63-38 in the penultimate week of the regular season. Then, in the regular-season finals, the Gamecocks ended a seven-game losing streak against Clemson, beating the Tigers 31-30 in Death Valley.

So here we are with the most “orange” Orange Bowl in the game’s turbulent history.

Dabo Swinney built a monster at Clemson, so much so that 11 wins and an ACC championship is considered a ho hum season. Josh Heupel, who was only leading the Vols in his second season, led Tennessee to its first 10-win regular season since 2003.

The most intriguing part of this game will be the quarterback position. Tennessee’s Joe Milton III took over from Hendon Hooker, who was a Heisman Trophy favorite when he was injured playing South Carolina. For Clemson, freshman Cade Klubnik came off the bench to lead his team to a 39-10 win over North Carolina in the ACC championship game. The Tigers’ all-season starter DJ Uiagalelei has opted to enter the transfer portal after being benched against the Tar Heels.

blankblank No. 6 Tennessee vs. No. 7 Clemson
Capital One Orange Peel
When: Friday, December 30 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida
How to see: ESPN and ESPN App
Opening line via Caesars Sportsbook: Clemson to 4.5


key players: No one on the Tennessee program wanted Joe Milton III to get his chance this way. But with star quarterback Hendon Hooker down with a season-ending ACL tear, Milton gets a chance to show what he’s got on a big stage. It’s also an opportunity to see just how much Milton has improved from a year ago when he opened the 2021 season as the Vols’ starter but was replaced by Hooker. Milton’s arm strength is incredible, and at 245 pounds, he’s a bloody runner in close-range situations. The challenge for Milton is accuracy. He was prone to tumbling receivers and rifle passes, which were difficult to catch when he could have used more finesse. The feeling around Tennessee’s program is that Milton polished his game at all stages. The Vols will need this version of Milton against a talented Clemson defense.

X factor: The Vols’ pass defense has been shaky for most of the season. They rank 127th nationally out of 131 teams (with 287 passing yards per game) and gave up 47 passes of 10 yards or longer, the most recent in the SEC. Since Klubnik will make his first starting quarterback for Clemson, the Vols’ pass rush will be as much (or more than) the runner-up. Tennessee needs to pressure Klubnik and keep him in the dark. The Vols had 27 sacks in 12 games but were limited to two in their losses to South Carolina and Georgia. Getting edge rusher Byron Young running again would be huge for the Vols. He leads the team with five sacks and 14 quarterback presses but hasn’t been as productive on the stretch.

How Tennessee wins: The Vols have followed the same plan all season. Take an early lead, put opposing defenses on their heels, play some big passing plays, and then close the deal with the game in progress. Tennessee has scored 38 or more points in 10 of their 12 games. The Vols love to bet on the knockout punch. But in their two losses this season, they fell early (24-6 to Georgia and 21-7 to South Carolina) and didn’t play nearly as well from behind. Getting Milton into a flow in the first quarter will be crucial for Tennessee, which means managing the ball effectively and creating some manageable third-down situations will be just as important. The Vols want to play fast and set the tone early, but doing so without a hooker could prove difficult. That’s why Tennessee can’t afford to squander possessions in this game.


key players: Quarterback Cade Klubnik. While most Clemson fans will likely spend the time between now and the Orange Bowl contemplating what would have happened if Klubnik had been the Tigers’ starter all along, there still remains the very real question of whether his star- Turn in the ACC championship game that marked the beginning of a new era or just a good game against a bad defense. Yes, Klubnik was an elite recruit with tons of talent, but until the game against North Carolina he hadn’t impressed on the field on gamedays with limited replays and won over the coaching staff enough to unseat DJ Uiagalelei as the Tigers’ starter, even if the offense fought. Remember, the Tar Heels had one of the worst pass defenses in the ACC in 2022, losing two key defensive backs in the matchup against Clemson. It seems clear that Klubnik was a real improvement over Uiagalelei – but the Orange Bowl will tell us a lot more about whether he’s good enough to bring Clemson back to the kind of explosiveness he enjoyed under Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence had.

X factor: Cornerback Nate Wiggins. Yes, Klubnik was the big story of the ACC title game, but the best player on the field was Wiggins, who had a broken pass in the end zone, a blocked field goal and a pick-six in the win over Drake Maye and UNC. Wiggins was set to become a superstar this season but he got off to a rocky start, including a brutal performance against Wake Forest in September. But he made steady progress throughout the season, culminating with the monster performance against Carolina. He’ll need another big play as part of the Tigers’ ebb and flow secondary if Clemson is looking to put a stop to a terrific passing play in Tennessee.

How Clemson wins: The Tigers have to follow the same formula they used in the ACC championship game, only with Klubnik on the field from the start. Tennessee’s run defense is great — 10th nationally in the EPA, 4th in yards from contact by carry and 11th in runs — so Clemson can’t count on Will Shipley & Co. for a ground-and-pound win . The passing game has to work and that now rests on Klubnik’s shoulders. On the other hand, Clemson’s D didn’t exactly stop North Carolina in the ACC title game, but they made big plays in the red zone and won the turnover fight. That could also be the best-case scenario against Tennessee. Orange Bowl – Key players, X factors for Tennessee, Clemson

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