Clemson concludes their season with a bout against the Kentucky Wildcats in the Taxslayer Gator Bowl. It will mark Clemson’s 10th appearance in the Gator Bowl. They first played in the bowl in January 1949, their second ever bowl appearance and second bowl win (24-23 over Missouri). The Gator Bowl was the first bowl a Swinney-led Tigers played in back in 2008, and eventual loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
While the Gator Bowl has some historical gravitas for Clemson, it feels somewhat overshadowed by a wild December for the sport of college football. So far Clemson has replaced two on-field coaches, signed a strong 22 player recruiting class, and watched as FSU has sued the ACC. It’s been a whirlwind so if you haven’t dug into the matchup with Kentucky, we get it, but we’re here to change that.
Ryan Kantor: Kentucky went 7-5 while generally beating the teams they should and losing to who you’d expect. That flipped in their last two games when they fell to South Carolina scoring just 14 points only to rebound against the Louisville Cardinals with 38 points and win the Governor’s Cup. How do you make sense of those final two outcomes?
Jason Marcum: The South Carolina game was a puzzling one for sure. Not necessarily that they lost (they were like a 2-point underdog at kickoff), but that they only scored 14 points against that horrific defense. Saying that, I know the Gamecocks changed some of their defense vs. Vanderbilt the previous week, then allowed only 14 to Kentucky and 16 to Clemson, so maybe that unit just started clicking finally.
The Louisville performance wasn’t hard to see, not after how Kentucky has dominated the series when Scott Satterfield was the coach. And while Jeff Brohm is a huge upgrade, he was still coaching with mostly Satterfield guys, so it was easy to see a path where Kentucky pulled the upset, though that doesn’t take away from how massive of a win it was and a much-needed shot in the arm for the program to beat a top-10 playoff contender in their own building.
It really feels like that win gave this program some badly needed momentum, both on the recruiting trail and on the field. I think it really helped give Kentucky the juice it needed to prepare for its bowl game in an era when it’s becoming increasingly easy for teams to just mail it in once the regular season ends (and I personally think that’s what Kentucky would have done had they lost that game).
I’m not saying Kentucky will beat Clemson, but I do feel good about them being ready to fight for this victory.
Ryan: As implied in the intro, this bowl game hasn’t really captured the attention of the fan base. For me, I’ll say the non-playoff bowls feel more like exhibitions than ever before. Coach Swinney does a great job motivating the players, but as a fan, this feels more like a spring game where we can see young players thrust into action than a postseason game where the outcome is paramount. How does this game feel to Kentucky fans?
Jason: I totally get where you’re coming from. Clemson is a national championship-winning program, so anything less than the New Year’s Six, I imagine, will feel like a letdown.
That said, the Gator Bowl is one of the more prestigious non-NY6 bowls. It’s the sixth-oldest bowl game, and it was the first bowl to be nationally televised, so there’s definitely some allure to it.
The last time these programs played, Kentucky was in one of its more successful eras under Rich Brooks, but the most his best seasons amounted to were Music City Bowls. The Gator Bowl is a clear step up from that, and even though Mark Stoops has taken Kentucky to a pair of Citrus Bowl, this still is very much a significant bowl appearance for the program, and I feel the players will echo that sentiment.
Ryan: Clemson has faced new UK QB Devin Leary three times and while he never looked like a dynamic gamebreaker, he was always competent. How has his transition to the SEC gone for the Wildcats?
Jason: Ironically, he’s been about as good in the SEC as...like you said, competent, but far from a gamebreaker. He did have a great game vs. Clemson in 2021, but that was a pretty so-so Clemson team that was just barely beating teams like 5-7 Syracuse by three and 3-9 Georgia Tech by six.
Against a much better 2022 Clemson team, he was about what he was in SEC games. Complete less than 60% of his passes, throw for around 200-250 yards, and have 1-2 touchdowns with a turnover.
He’s an average quarterback. He might look good once in a while, but more often than not, he’s not what’s winning you a ballgame.
Ryan: As I’m sure you know, Florida State has brought a lawsuit against the ACC alleging “chronic fiduciary mismanagement and bad faith” that “undermined its members’ revenue opportunities.” Rumors are Florida doesn’t want Florida State to join the SEC. From Kentucky’s perspective, which ACC teams would you like to see join the SEC and which would you prefer to keep out?
Jason: If I’m Kentucky, Florida State and Clemson are the type of programs you don’t want to see in an already-deep SEC. They already recruit great, have tradition, and get to utilize strong recruiting bases. Add in the SEC, and Kentucky simply won’t consistently compete with them.
Ryan: Clemson’s offense, particularly the passing game, has struggled as QB Cade Klubnik has made questionable decisions and the wide receiver room is devoid of a (healthy) threat on the outside. They will be without WR Beaux Collins but should have WR Antonio Williams back from injury. Tell us about some of the strengths and weaknesses of this Kentucky defense to help us set expectations and ground our postgame takeaways.
Jason: Kentucky’s defense definitely has the potential to be good, but they’ve struggled to find any real consistency this year. The secondary is a pretty big weakness, but they do have one good player in cornerback Maxwell Hairston, so that may be enough to slow down the Clemson offense if it only has one or two reliable threats.
The frontline has a legitimate NFL Draft pick in defensive tackle Deone Walker. He can absolutely wreak havoc in the backfield if you don’t get two helmets on him.
Trevin Wallace and D’Eryk Jackson are a solid linebacker tandem, while JJ Weaver can bring heat off the edge, but Kentucky won’t have fellow edge player Keaton Wade due to opt-out, so I’m not confident they’ll be able to consistently get pressure if they contain Walker, especially against a QB like Klubnik who can move the pocket and run for big gains.
Ryan: Kentucky ranks last in plays per game averaging just 56 per game. What’s the background behind that eye-popping stat? Do they run down the play clock nearly every play and run a bend-but-don’t-break defense?
Jason: Part of that is the offense being so boom-or-bust at times with long plays on short scoring drives or 3-and-outs. They had five offensive drives of five or fewer plays (not counting end-of-half possessions) vs. Ball State, seven vs. Akron, and nine vs. Vanderbilt.
Part of it is the defense struggles to get off the field and will allow very long drives, even in low-scoring games. I wouldn’t doubt Clemson will have at least one drive of 10+ plays. Louisville had one of 14 plays and another of 15 plays. Even EKU had drives of nine and 10 plays vs. this defense.
A high rate of 5-or-less-play drives on offense and a defense that can’t get off the field is the perfect recipe for disaster, and boy was Kentucky just that when it came to plays per game this year.
Ryan: Clemson is favored by 5.5 points despite CB Nate Wiggins and LB Jeremiah Trotter opting out for the NFL draft, CB Toriano Pride and WR Beaux Collins transferring, and CB Sheridan Jones and CB Jaedyn Lukus likely out with injury. What do you think is the most likely outcome for this game?
Jason: When it comes to making predictions for bowl games, I like to give players the benefit of the doubt and predict games as though they’re playing hard and not mailing in it. So while Clemson does have a lot of key defections, they still have a roster full of talent from top-10 recruiting classes while being coached by a multi-time title winner in Dabo Swinney.
I do think this will be one of the more competitive non-NY6 bowls, and while the Wildcats will have their chances, I’m giving the Tigers the narrow edge.
Final score: Clemson 24, Kentucky 20