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Orange Bowl Preview: Clemson Takes on Tennessee

The Cade Klubnik era begins!

NCAA Football: ACC Football Championship-Clemson at North Carolina Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022 ACC Champion Clemson Tigers are set to face a resurgent Tennessee Volunteer program in the Orange Bowl. After a hot and cold run with D.J. Uiagalelei, the Tigers finally made the switch to freshman Cade Klubnik with the third series against UNC and he responded with an MVP performance. Moreover, some of the explosiveness that has been missing from the offense really since 2020 returned, giving Clemson fans new hope that the once feared HUNH attack that had provided so many championships is still attainable. However, there have been plenty of moments where backups have burst onto a scene but were unable to replicate that same level. The new challenge for Cade and the offense is performing as more film and data are available.

Tennessee, like Clemson, has a terrible loss to South Carolina to thank for being in this bowl and not a playoff game. However, the Vols have had a magical season highlighted by a thrilling victory over Alabama as well as a dominate win over eventual SEC West champion LSU in Baton Rouge. Their offense has been at the very top of college football this season, albeit mostly on the efforts of the now injured quarterback Hendon Hooker and wide receiver Jalin Hyatt who has opted out of the game and declare for the NFL draft. Their fan base is hopeful this season is a sign they are back to being a top 10 program.

Clemson offense vs. Tennessee defense: Clemson’s offense was definitely on a downward spiral beginning with a putrid second half against the Gamecocks and two listless three and outs against a poor UNC defense. However, Cade Klubnik entered the game and appeared to unlock the Tiger passing attack in a way not seen in many, many weeks. Clemson has to be ready to answer with its offense in this game because Tennessee has proven it can put up points in a hurry, even with Joe Milton at the controls. The Tigers are still built on the running game with Will Shipley and Phil Mafah, as well as the QB run threat that is amplified with the faster Klubnik now at the helm, but the cover 1 and cover 0 defensive blueprints that had been working to perfection in recent times against DJU all of a sudden feel much more risky for opposing defenses. Teams were showing Clemson looks to invite pass checks and decisions in the RPO situations, but where DJU struggled to execute with his WR against these looks, Cade and the group started making things look easy again. It will be very interesting to see what Tennessee attempts to do to defend this offense now.

It still largely comes down to taking care of the football. Clemson’s 2 losses featured brutal turnovers and you certainly don’t want to set up a capable offensive football team with giveaways. The Vols, even at full strength, are a middling defense that largely benefitted from an offense that could race out to leads. When they needed to step up in Columbia, they failed miserably. This is a defense that takes a lot of chances knowing it usually just needs to produce a few key stops before their offense stakes a lead they then can pin their ears back to protect. There is a lot of optimism around Klubnik and what his ascension means for the offense, but can he come out and repeat that level of play when the whole world knows he is going to be the guy? I’m guessing Tennessee is going to try to put as much pressure on him as possible in order to find out.

Clemson defense vs. Tennessee offense: This comes in as your classic strength on strength matchup. The Tiger defense is among the best in the country while Tennessee’s offense ran up obscene numbers all year long. I think it is helpful that Clemson just faced a similarly structured offense from UNC that relies on pace and can really hurt you with explosive plays from a dual threat quarterback. Tennessee operates at an even faster pace than UNC, but I do believe the preparation from Charlotte will help with this game in some facets.

Clemson’s defense has experienced a major boost from the play of MIKE linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, Jr. His last month of football has been the best play at that position I have seen really since Stephone Anthony dominated in 2014. Even though the Tigers will be missing Trenton Simpson, freshman Wade Woodaz has been a very pleasant addition to the defense down the stretch. Clemson’s front seven is still largely in tact and will need to make sure the Vols cannot establish any kind of inside run game. Like UNC, the Vols are at their most lethal when their running game is working and they can work play action to set up their shots down the field. Tempo teams like this are not really built to just drop back and read defenses. Clemson’s ability to defend first down and second down will determine how multiple Wes Goodwin can get in third down situations. Clemson was tremendous against UNC when they got inside Clemson’s 30. The Tigers will again look to limit Tennessee’s explosive plays and force the Vols to execute multiple play drives and then lock them up when the field gets condensed.

Joe Milton is not the passer Hooker is and the Vols leaned on their running game to destroy Vanderbilt in their final regular season game. Clemson has to make Milton win this game with his arm and hope guys like Nate Wiggins can continue to play at a very high level. This may or may not be the final game for guys like Bryan Bresee and K.J. Henry, but if it is, you would like to think it is because they dominated this game and parlayed that into NFL draft projections too good to pass up the way Sammy Watkins and Nuk Hopkins did.

Special Teams: Clemson rebounded from being embarrassed in this phase against the Gamecocks with a good night in Charlotte. B.T. Potter nailed another 50+ yard field goal and Nate Wiggins provided a huge blocked FG that was part of the pivotal stretch of the game where Clemson took full control. Really bad special teams and turnovers were the common denominators of both Tiger losses this season.

Overall: This year’s bowl season has provided a lot of good games and refreshing motivated performances from most. Clemson is back in a limelight game, albeit not a playoff game, against a team that was top 5 for a large stretch of the season. Both teams are looking to create a positive narrative for 2023. Tennessee wants to announce their program is back among the elite, and a season with wins over Alabama and Clemson would be huge feathers in their caps. Meanwhile, Clemson wants to show that Cade Klubnik is the guy that will once again unlock the Tigers’ true power as a national force going forward.

In Cade we trust: Clemson 42-Tennessee 28.