I hope your holidays have been blessed. This stretch of time between the conference title games and the bowls/playoffs has been about as crazy as I can ever remember. Clemson has brought in Matt Luke and Chris Rumph to bolster the coaching staff in two key areas. The Tigers have seen a few transfers, most notably Beaux Collins and Andrew Mukuba who were starters, and three opt outs for the NFL draft, but otherwise are in pretty good shape considering this is a “mid-tier” bowl game.
Clemson’s opponent saw their coach Mark Stoops halfway out the door to Texas A&M before he got the Greg Schiano treatment from Aggie money people that deep sixed that deal. The Wildcats, despite that drama, have essentially their full roster ready for this game including running back Ray Davis who is off to the NFL draft afterwards.
This matchup was made possible largely due to ESPN conspiring with the CFP committee to omit Florida State from the playoffs despite their undefeated ACC title winning season. That seemed to be the final straw that hastened FSU suing the ACC to break from the GOR deal brokered by John Swofford in 2016. There have been a slew of transfers and huge NIL paydays that will make your head spin if you really follow it. Clemson and Kentucky have been relatively drama-free by comparison.
As mid-tier matchups go, this is a pretty compelling one for Clemson considering the Wildcats are taking this game seriously. We have already heard some of the predictable “SEC physicality” noise. Clemson is looking for 9 wins and a strong 5-game win streak to end a disappointing overall 2023 based on the program’s lofty preseason goals. Kentucky is looking to grab a signature win of sorts to follow their upset of Louisville on rivalry weekend.
Clemson offense vs. Kentucky defense: Kentucky has become a steady program under Mark Stoops built largely on the old school physical defense and running game model. This has gotten them to perennial bowl status but they have fallen short of eclipsing the true power programs of the SEC like UGA and Alabama during this time. I liken them to the SEC version of Iowa, in terms of how they play and their ceiling. Their defense is anchored by mammoth DT Deone Walker who is a legit NFL caliber DL. New Tiger OL coach Matt Luke will be working to help keep Walker from wrecking the Clemson running game, which remains the strength of this Tiger offense. Thankfully for Clemson, Phil Mafah and Will Shipley are ready to go for this game and Kentucky will have to build their plan around stopping them before anything else. It certainly helps that Clemson has dudes like DeMonte Capehart, Tyler Davis, and Peter Woods so that a guy like Walker isn’t totally different from what the line might see in a practice. Still, Walker is a very good player and one to definitely watch out for when the Tigers have the ball.
Clemson is happy to welcome back Antonio Williams to the WR corps after his long bout with injury during the regular season. Guys like Williams and Tyler Brown are going to be key to stretching the Wildcat defense horizontally which several teams had success doing during the regular season. Kentucky uses a hybrid 4-2-5 base defense and typically tries to keep the action in front and prevent explosive plays. They rely on their big front 3 to help them not have to leave their corners on islands in order to stop the running game.
Clemson has had to mostly put a lot of plays together to score this season as the Tigers continue to lack an explosive passing attack. Most defenses this season have worked to try to keep the Tigers in front of them and look to pounce on some of the critical mistakes the offense was making ad nauseum in the first half of the season. Since the Notre Dame game, however, the Tigers have taken much better care of the football and that has allowed an elite defense to once again carry the team the way we saw in 2021. Kentucky’s best win is probably their last win against Louisville, and they used 3 turnovers to offset a big yardage deficit in that victory. They were -3 in turnovers when they lost at South Carolina. This once again highlights the importance of taking care of the ball and ending possessions with some form of a kick.
I will be watching the Clemson OL very closely to see if we notice any early signs of impact from Coach Luke. It certainly is too early to pass any judgement on just how much of an upgrade he will be, but that won’t stop many from seeing how this group performs under new leadership. The Tiger OL has shown some flashes of very good, particularly in the Notre Dame game, but despite largely controlling the game in Columbia to end the season, the offense’s inability to score a TD and really break that game wide open continues to keep a lingering concern about the offense heading into this game.
Quarterback Cade Klubnik has largely taken a back seat to the running game during the second half of the season. However, Cade’s ability to avoid the disaster play has improved from when the Tigers stumbled out to a 4-4 start. To be fair, Cade has rarely had a full set of WR to work with during the season with Cole Turner, Antonio Williams, and Beaux Collins all missing significant time due to injuries. Troy Stellato has played without any offseason preparation and Adam Randall finished the season playing with a broken hand. The offense has definitely defaulted to more conservative play calls down the stretch, but you can’t argue with winning football games even if things aren’t as prolific as a fan might want.
Clemson defense vs. Kentucky offense: I’ll tip my cap to Wes Goodwin who really put a great product on the field this season. The defense had its fair share of capable offenses and quarterbacks to deal with and largely made the opposing QB’s life a living Hell starting with Sam Hartman and ending with Spencer Rattler. Now they take on former NCSU QB Devin Leary who managed to slay the 2021 defense in Raleigh with a 4 TD performance in their OT win over the Tigers. Leary is capable of some “wow” throws, particularly in the 15-25 yard range, but can also be hurried into poor decisions and some forced throws. It will be important to put this game in Leary’s hands and not give him the security of the running game.
If the Wildcats get going on offense, it is usually because Ray Davis gets rolling in the running game. Davis really exploded early in the year when he ripped Florida apart for 280 yards and 3 scores. Kentucky finished just 1-4 against ranked opponents with Davis only topping 100 yards in one of those games (vs. Mizzou). Clemson can’t let Davis get going and need to also be aware of Kentucky’s screen game.
Clemson will face this attack without two of its best defensive players who are moving on to the NFL draft. Jeremiah Trotter played lights out the second half of the season and Nate Wiggins provided lock down coverage on his side of the field. Barrett Carter is returning for 2024 and needs to seize the opportunity to step into Trotter’s alpha role in this game. Carter is actually a superior athlete to Trotter but has not tackled nearly as well in 2023, which is a major reason he has chosen to come back and get better. I would expect Carter to assume Trotter’s MLB role for this game and have Wade Woodaz play the WLB spot, but we won’t know Goodwin’s plan for certain until the game gets going.
Clemson is very thin at corner with Wiggins opting out and injuries taking out Jeadyn Lukus and Sheridan Jones. Fortunately, with the emergence of freshmen Avieon Terrell and Shelton Lewis, the Tigers should be just fine matchup up outside with Kentucky. The Wildcats are actually very similar to Clemson in WR production this season and certainly don’t have a guy like Xavier Legette or Tez Walker on the outside. Clemson got through the Cheez-It Bowl with Mario Goodrich and Andrew Booth essentially taking all the snaps so fingers crossed that Terrell and Lewis stay healthy through the contest.
Clemson has to account for Mukuba’s absence but will return R.J. Mickens (for the bowl AND 2024!) and Jaelyn Phillips who has been out since the NCSU game. Tyler Venables should also be back if needed for this game, so safety depth is a little better off.
Chris Rumph is the second new addition to the Tiger’s staff going into this game. Rumph will look to unlock the DE’s in ways that really haven’t been seen since the end of the Power Rangers era. Clemson has had top end talent like Myles Murphy but the production has lagged a bit in the last three seasons. Clemson has veterans Xavier Thomas and Justin Mascoll, who both have had career best seasons, to go with star freshman T.J. Parker. Like Luke, it will be too early to really know how Rumph’s impact will be going forward, but Thomas and Mascoll will certainly be looking to finish with a flourish to help their NFL aspirations.
The Clemson defense is elite and hopefully will maintain that level even with four major starter level guys not participating in this game. It is refreshing to see several guys like Tyler Davis, XT, Mascoll, and Will Shipley choose to go compete with the NFL or draft decisions in their future. Booth and Goodrich deciding to play in 2021 was a huge reason the Tigers were able to beat Brock Purdy and Iowa State to close that season out.
Special Teams: It took all season long, but I guess if Clemson was going to get real production from a placekicker, Columbia, SC is the place I would have asked for it the most. Clemson fans have to hope that performance will have Jonathan Weitz locked in and reliable in his final game as a Tiger. His unique story certainly wasn’t looking all that great until he put together a great performance last time out. Clemson’s punting has been strong almost all season and Robert Gunn is able to nearly eliminate kick return threats. That will be important in this game because Kentucky used a 100 yard kick return TD as a catalyst to their upset win over Louisville.
Clemson’s return game hasn’t been anything special but, like the offense, the biggest goal is to not put the defense in a bad position and force teams to have to drive a long way against that great unit. Hamp Greene has been a steady returner and has made good decisions with fielding punts. Shipley hasn’t had much opportunity to return kicks but is always a dangerous element back there should he get a chance to show it. This is shaping up to be a lower scoring game heading in, so the kicking game will loom large in that scenario.
Overall: I credit this team for not allowing this season to truly crash and burn. To be honest, this really is the best team in the ACC when it doesn’t beat itself even with the warts that linger offensively. A lot of folks have forgotten how Clemson outplayed a full strength FSU team the vast majority of the game back in September, and that was before the freshman takeover got going with Khalil Barnes and his mates. The Tigers throttled a very good GT running attack and humbled Drake Maye and Spencer Rattler. It really all comes down to Clemson not killing itself with the worst turnovers possible.
Kentucky is a step behind Clemson, but, like NCSU, not so far that Clemson can afford to play poorly and hope to win. The Wildcats are also thinking if they are able to take care of the ball and force turnovers that they will win. They have some very good pieces and a QB who can potentially get hot and make some big plays. They have their full team ready to compete for this one as well.
Neither of these teams are built to really play comeback football and I expect to see some conservative game plans as a result. The team that can run the ball with any kind of consistency will have a major advantage. I just think Clemson’s defense will be better able to suffocate Kentucky in the long run.