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No. 6 Tennessee vs. No. 7 Clemson: Orange Bowl preview, best bets

Orange Bowl: No. 6 Tennessee vs. No. 7 Clemson

Location: Miami Gardens, Florida

Date: Dec. 30 (8 p.m. ET)

TV: ESPN

Line: Clemson -5.5

Total: 63.5

How these teams got here

Tennessee (10-2): The Volunteers were looking to improve in Josh Heupel’s second season after going 7-6 in 2021. If you would have asked a Tennessee fan before the season if he or she would take a 10-2 season with no complaints, we’d bet a vast majority would say yes.

And it was undoubtedly a hugely successful season for the Vols, though with a couple big caveats. Tennessee started the season 8-0 and knocked off Florida, LSU, Alabama and Kentucky in the process. The last-second win over Alabama was a landmark achievement. Tennessee hadn’t beaten the Crimson Tide since Nick Saban became head coach — a stretch that dates back to the Vols’ victory in 2006.

The easy win over Kentucky set up a huge game against Georgia that was a de facto SEC East title game. And the Bulldogs overwhelmed the Vols in a game that was much more of a blowout than the 27-13 final score indicated.

UT bounced back with a win over Missouri later to keep its hopes of sneaking into the playoff alive before disaster struck in Columbia, South Carolina. The Gamecocks blitzed Tennessee 63-38 and star QB Hendon Hooker had to leave the game after tearing an ACL. The game ended any hope Tennessee had of winning the national title and any hope Hooker had of winning the Heisman after a breakout campaign.

Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik (2) throws against North Carolina during the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)
Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik is set to make his first start in the Orange Bowl. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Clemson (11-2): The Tigers are back atop the ACC after a one-year absence. Though playoff contention wasn’t really ever in the cards in 2022.

Clemson entered the season needing improved play from its offense to have any shot at getting into the top four. D.J. Uiagalelei threw for just 2,246 yards a season ago and had more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine). It was an ugly, ugly offensive display. Yet Clemson still went 10-3 after a bowl win over Iowa State, thanks to a defense that gave up fewer than 15 points per game.

The offense took a step forward in 2022 and averaged 5.7 yards per play (up from 5.2 in 2021). Uiagalelei had a better season. His completion percentage went up. He threw 13 more touchdowns and three fewer interceptions. Will Shipley rushed for over 1,000 yards and the Tigers beat Wake Forest 51-45 in a Week 4 shootout. It was hard to see Clemson doing that a season ago.

But Uiagalelei’s limitations in this offense were on full display in a 35-14 loss to Notre Dame as he threw 39 times for just 191 yards. That effectively ended Clemson’s playoff hopes and a turnover-marred 31-30 loss to South Carolina at home officially ruined Clemson’s chances.

Uiagalelei still started the ACC title game but was benched early in the first half after a slow start in favor of backup Cade Klubnik. The Tigers went on to win that game 39-10 over North Carolina as Klubnik threw for 279 yards and a TD, ran for another and even caught a 19-yard pass. He’ll make the first start of his career on Friday night.

Notable transfers/opt-outs

Tennessee: LB Jeremy Banks, WR Jalin Hyatt, WR Cedric Tillman,

Clemson: DE Myles Murphy, QB D.J. Uiagalelei, RB Kobe Pace, CB Fred Davis II

Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III (7) throws to a receiver during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton will start the Orange Bowl in Hendon Hooker's absence. (AP Photo/Wade Payne) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Players to know

Tennessee QB Joe Milton: The Michigan transfer opened the 2021 season as the starter before Hooker took over and established himself as the top option going forward. Milton played the final game of the season against Vanderbilt and is 34-of-54 passing for 720 yards and seven TDs in 2022. He has a ton of arm strength, so don’t expect to see Tennessee’s deep passing game disappear without Hooker and wide receivers Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt missing the game to prepare for the NFL draft.

Clemson QB Cade Klubnik: The freshman was so good in the ACC title game that Uiagalelei entered the transfer portal and recently committed to Oregon State. This is Klubnik’s offense on Friday night and presumably in 2023. Outside of that ACC title game, most of his time on the field came in mop-up duty like Milton. Klubnik is 31-of-46 passing for 377 yards and two TDs and an interception so far this season. He’s also rushed for 88 yards. Look for him to get the ball to Antonio Williams and Joseph Ngata.

What’s on the line

Tennessee: The Volunteers have already scored their first 10-win season since 2007. That was the penultimate season of Phil Fulmer’s tenure. Heupel is the team’s fifth coach since Fulmer quit coaching.

With that stat in mind, you don’t need us to tell you the Orange Bowl is the first New Year’s Six game Tennessee has played in and it’s the biggest bowl for the school since the 2004 Cotton Bowl. A win would give UT its first 11-win season since 2001 and give the Vols a boost heading into 2023 when they hope to make another run at Georgia.

Clemson: Clemson has won at least 10 games in each of the last 12 seasons since going 6-7 in coach Dabo Swinney’s second year with the team. A win would give Clemson a 12-win season for the sixth time in that span and the team’s first 12-win season since 2019 when it lost to LSU in the national title game.

Counting the playoff, this is the eighth season Clemson has made a New Year’s Six bowl game and the Tigers are 7-4 in those 11 games.

Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel, left, and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, right, speak during a news conference for the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022, in Hollywood, Fla. The two teams will play in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Tennessee and Josh Heupel are looking for an 11-win season while Dabo Swinney is aiming for his sixth 12-win season at Clemson. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Best bets

Nick Bromberg: Tennessee’s defense has been up and down and could struggle without Banks on the field. Throw in Milton at QB and no Hyatt and Tillman and I’m inclined to lean with the Tigers in this one. I think Clemson’s defensive line will disrupt Tennessee’s offense enough to take some pressure off Klubnik. Pick: Clemson -5.5

Sam Cooper: I don't have a strong opinion on this game, but I know I don't want to back Tennessee with Joe Milton at quarterback when Tillman and Hyatt aren't playing. I also doubt Cade Klubnik will light up Tennessee the way he did North Carolina. Clemson's offensive issues run way deeper than just replacing Uiagalelei with Klubnik. In the end, I think Clemson's pass rush should be the difference. I lean toward Clemson, but I'm not crazy about giving this many points. I'll go with the under. Pick: Under 63.5