Miami is set for one of the juicier matchups of the college bowl season on Friday. Tennessee faces Clemson in what may be the orangest Orange Bowl in the game’s 87-year history. Our Orange Bowl preview shows how it will be the culmination of an interesting season for each team.
For Josh Heupel‘s orange and white squad, this season was the rejuvenation of a dormant program. The Vols won 10 regular season games for the first time since 2003 and beat arch-rival Alabama for the first time since 2006.
It’s the opposite for Dabo Swinney‘s orange and purple squad. The Tigers have missed the College Football Playoffs for the second straight season after appearing in six straight CFPs from 2015-2020. Even after the sustained success, some are questioning whether Swinney’s style can survive the modern realities of NIL and college football free agency.
Orange Bowl Preview: Three Things To Look For
It’s hard to imagine a fanbase being disappointed with a 31-7 record over three years, but that’s what happens when you go 69-5 in your previous 74 games. Tennessee fans, meanwhile, hope that Heupel is laying the groundwork for the type of sustained success that Clemson has enjoyed over the past decade. Our Orange Bowl Preview takes a look at two programs meeting at different points in their journeys.
Game: 87th Annual Capital One Orange Bowl
Time: Friday, December 30th, 8:00 p.m. ET
Where: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida
Odds: Clemson -4.5, O/U 63.5
As compelling as the program storylines are, no Orange Bowl Preview is complete without a look at some of the key variables of the game itself. Here’s the three things that will make the difference in the game.
Battle of the Backup Quarterbacks
Both teams will start a quarterback that began the season as the team’s backup. Joe Milton III re-assumed the starter duties after Heisman favorite Hendon Hooker went down with a season-ending injury during the South Carolina game. Milton started the first two games of the 2021 season and Tennessee’s last regular season game against Vanderbilt. Milton has starting experience at Michigan as well. Milton’s arm talent is off-the-charts and he is a freak athlete that can run with power and speed from the quarterback position. The big question with Milton is his deep ball accuracy and his touch on short and intermediate routes. If he can get that dialed in, Tennessee can beat any team in the nation.
Clemson made the switch to freshman Cade Klubnik in the third series of the ACC Championship game. Klubnik was an efficient 20-f0r-24 against the Tar Heels, but Clemson relied primarily on a poor performance from North Carolina. The Tar Heels out-gained, out-possessed, and had 50% more first downs than Clemson. Klubnik doesn’t have the same amount of experience as Milton, but he’s handled the opportunities he’s had this season well. Still, asking a freshman to make his first start against a top-ten opponent in a marquee bowl game is a tall task.
This game might well depend on which backup blooms the best in the warm Florida night. You’ve got to think Milton’s experience and athleticism give Tennessee a slight advantage here.
The quarterbacks aren’t the only second stingers getting their opportunity to shine in the Orange Bowl. For Tennessee, Biletnikoff Award winner Jalin Hyatt and fellow receiver Cedric Tillman will forego the game. Additionally, starting middle linebacker Jeremy Banks has opted out of the game. While Hyatt and Tillman’s statistics are impressive, Tennessee is deep at wide receiver. Bru McCoy, Ramel Keyton, and Squirrel White will be the three primary weapons for Milton. Tennessee is thin at linebacker, however. Banks, when under control, has been a wrecking ball for the Volunteers’ defense. Juwan Mitchell and Solon Page will likely pick up Banks’ slack on Friday.
For Clemson, the damage isn’t quite as bad. All-ACC and likely NFL first-rounder Myles Murphy has opted out of the game. Murphy was a key component of Clemson’s 19th-ranked team defense. Going against the nation’s top-ranked scoring offense, Murphy’s ability to pressure the quarterback from the edge will be sorely missed. Murphy led the Tigers with 6.5 sacks on the season. Clemson’s pressure will now likely come from linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, Jr., which will leave some room in the middle for Tennessee to exploit. Junior linebacker Trenton Simpson, the second leading tackler on the team, will also miss the game due to injury.
Opposite the quarterback discussion, Clemson seems to have the advantage here. The Vols have talent backfilling their opt-outs, but Clemson has far more experience to fill far less voided starter space.
Tennessee’s High-Powered Offense
With all those opt-outs and injuries, can Tennessee’s top-ranked offense keep rolling? The Vols lead the nation in scoring offense at 47.3 points per game. And they did so against some of the best teams in the nation. Vanderbilt allowed Milton to get back in the groove of playing a full game. Clemson’s defense will miss Murphy and Simpson. And Heupel’s staff has shown a keen ability to effectively gameplan against opponents’ weaknesses.
The most important variable of the entire game is Milton’s consistency. If Milton can be at 65% completion percentage overall and at least 50% on throws of 30 yards or more, Tennessee will find themselves with their first Top 10 finish in a generation. If he can’t, Tennessee will find itself struggling to get its offense in rhythm and keep up with Clemson’s balanced attack.
Orange Bowl Preview: The Last Word
It’s orange versus orange. A resurgent Tennessee program against a Clemson program that many think is on the decline. A powerful offense against a well-balanced team. Clemson’s recent rise is closely linked to the Orange Bowl. It was 2011 when Clemson won 10 regular season games for the first time in 22 years, a similar position the Vols find themselves in this year. Clemson was crushed by West Virginia 70-33 and many thought Swinney’s Tigers were a fluke. Only two years later, the Tigers beat Ohio State in the Orange Bowl to establish themselves as a program that was here to stay.
Is this a changing of the guard between teams of orange? And if it is, what better place to do so than in the Orange Bowl? Tennessee’s offense keeps rolling, even with several replacement parts.