Rumors that Shane Beamer will be tossing a coin at this year’s Capital One Orange Bowl opener are untrue as Clemson and Tennessee have only met in football for the fourth time in 75 years.
If it wasn’t for Beamer’s South Carolina Gamecocks, the Tigers or Vols could easily have made the college football playoffs. South Carolina rocked Tennessee 63-38 in the penultimate week of the regular season. Then, in the regular season finale, the Gamecocks recorded a seven-loss streak to Clemson and beat the Tigers 31–30 in Death Valley.
So, before us is the most “orange” Orange Bowl in the entire legendary history of the game.
Dabo Sweeney has built a monster in Clemson, so much so that 11 wins and an ACC championship is considered a boring season. Josh Hupel, heading the Vols in just 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. Joe Milton III of Tennessee replaced Heisman Hooker, who was one of the Heisman Trophy favorites when he was injured in the South Carolina game. For Clemson, freshman Cade Strawberry came off the bench to lead his team to a 39-10 victory over North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game. The Tigers’ starter throughout the season, DJ Uiagalelei, decided to enter the transfer portal after being on the bench against the Tar Heels.
No. 6 Tennessee vs. No. 7 Clemson
Capital One Orange Bowl
When: Friday, December 30 at 8:00 pm ET.
Where: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida
How to watch: Sportzshala and the Sportzshala App
Opening line via Caesars Sportsbook: Clemson at 4.5
Key player: No one in the Tennessee program wanted Joe Milton III to get his chance this way. But with star quarterback Hendon Hooker suffering a late-season torn ACL, Milton gets a chance to show his best on the big stage. It’s also an opportunity to see how much Milton has improved from last year when he opened the 2021 season with the Vols but was replaced by Hooker. Milton’s arm strength is incredible, and at 245 pounds, he’s a great short-distance runner. Milton’s goal is precision. He tended to drop receivers and rifle passes that were hard to catch when he could have used more agility. The feeling around the Tennessee program is that Milton has polished his game at all stages. The Vols will need this version of Milton against Clemson’s talented defense.
X – Factor: The Vols’ pass defense was shaky for much of the season. They are ranked 127th nationally out of 131 teams (allowing 287 passing yards per game) and have given up 47 passes for 10 yards or more, which was the last in the SEC. As Strawberry is about to make his first start as Clemson’s quarterback, Vols’ passing burden will lie just as much (or more) than the second. Tennessee needs to put pressure on Strawberry and make him guess. The Vols had 27 sacks in 12 games, but their losses to South Carolina and Georgia were limited to two. The return of edge rusher Byron Young would be a huge success for Vols. He leads the team with five sacks and 14 quarterback pressures, but hasn’t been as productive since.
How Tennessee wins: Vols followed the same plan all season long. Get an early lead, get the opposition on their heels, throw some big passes, and then close the deal in the current game. Tennessee has scored 38 or more points in 10 of 12 games. Vols like to throw knockout punches. But in their two losses this season, they trailed early (24-6 to Georgia and 21-7 to South Carolina) and didn’t play as well from behind. Getting Milton into the game in the first quarter will be critical for Tennessee, meaning effective ball control and creating some controlled third-down situations will be just as important. The Vols want to play fast and set the tone early, but doing so without Hooker can be tricky. That’s why Tennessee can’t afford to lose property in this game.
Key player: Quarterback Cade Strawberry. While most Clemson fans will probably spend time between now and the Orange Bowl thinking about what it might have been like if Strawberry had been a Tigers starter all along, there’s still a very real question as to whether whether his stellar turn in the ACC championship game marked success. the beginning of a new era, or just a good play against a bad defense. Yes, Strawberry was an elite recruit with tons of talent, but before playing in North Carolina, he didn’t impress on the field in limited reps on game days and failed to win over the coaching staff enough to dislodge DJ Uiagalelei from the Tigers. ‘ starter, even when the offense is struggling. Remember, the Tar Heels had one of the worst defensive passes in the ACC in 2022 and lost to two key defenders against Clemson. It seems obvious that the Strawberry is indeed better than the Wiagalels, but the Orange Bowl will tell us a lot more about whether he’s good enough to give Clemson back the explosiveness he had under Deshawn Watson and Trevor Lawrence.
X – Factor: Cornerback Nate Wiggins. Yes, Strawberry was a big story from the ACC title game, but the best player on the field was Wiggins, who had a pass cut in the end zone, a blocked field goal, and a spade-six in a win over Drake May and UNC. . Wiggins was expected to be a superstar this season, but his start was rocky, including a brutal performance against Wake Forest in September. But he made steady progress throughout the season, culminating in a monstrous performance against Carolina. He’ll need another big game as part of the Tigers’ secondary game if Clemson wants to slow down Tennessee’s amazing passing game.
How Clemson wins: The Tigers must follow the same formula they used in the ACC Championship game, only with Strawberry on the field from the first snap. Tennessee’s rush defense is amazing – 10th nationally by the EPA, 4th in carry yards and 11th in rushing – so Clemson can’t rely on Will Shipley & Co. to win the ground and pound. The passing game should be functional, and now it’s on Strawberry’s shoulders. On the other hand, Clemson’s D didn’t quite stop North Carolina in the ACC title game, but he made a big play in the red zone and won the loss battle. This might be the best scenario against Tennessee as well.