A few weeks ago, a Tennessee-Clemson bowl matchup would have been one of the most appetizing of the season, featuring quarterbacks Hendon Hooker and DJ Uiagalelei.
Neither player will be on the field when the No. 6 Volunteers face the No. 7 Tigers on Dec. 30 in the Orange Bowl at Miami Gardens, Fla., on Dec. 30.
Hooker saw his sensational season for Tennessee end when he tore the ACL in his left knee against South Carolina on Nov. 19. The following week, the Gamecocks had a major hand in ending Uiagalelei’s tenure at Clemson by harassing him into a poor performance.
Uiagalelei then started slowly in the ACC championship victory over North Carolina and was pulled in favor of freshman Cade Klubnik, who completed 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards and one touchdown. When Tigers coach Dabo Swinney announced Klubnik would start the Orange Bowl, Uiagalelei entered the transfer portal to search for a new school.
Clemson makes its 18th straight bowl appearance — the fifth-best streak nationally — with Klubnik leading the way. He said he observed the way everything played out and learned from how Uiagalelei handled the situation.
“He was consistent through it all. He led through it all,” Klubnik said of Uiagalelei. “He stayed to who he was and stayed true to his teammates. Never tried to point a finger. Never turned an eye. Just stayed who he was, and that really showed a lot.”
Joe Milton III makes his second start of this season and fourth of his Tennessee tenure due to the season-ending injury to Hooker, who finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
The Orange Bowl gives Milton a head start toward being the Volunteers’ starter next season. One of his tasks is achieving the school’s first 11-win season since 2001.
“We have to finish it off, obviously, for our brother Hendon,” Milton said. “He put a lot into the program, and if he was out there, he’d be playing his heart out. I feel like that’s what we’ll do as a team.”
Milton will be missing Biletnikoff Award winner Jalin Hyatt and fellow receiver Cedric Tillman after both opted out of the Orange Bowl and declared for the NFL Draft.
Two other Volunteers — defensive end Byron Young and right tackle Darnell Wright — will play in the contest and then declare for the draft.
The Clemson defense is led by Jeremiah Trotter Jr., who has 12 tackles for loss.
“He’s just a baller. He’s an incredibly instinctive player,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said of Trotter. “… He’s put the work in. He’s incredibly focused.”
Tennessee opened the season with eight straight victories and was No. 1 in the first College Football Playoff rankings before losing to then-No. 3 Georgia on Nov. 5. Though the goal was to reach the playoffs, defensive tackle Bryson Eason said the team’s mood is good for the Orange Bowl.
“I feel like everybody is dialed in and focusing and we’re ready to have a big game and show the world what it is,” Eason said. “We are blessed to be in this opportunity to play in a New Year’s Six bowl.”
Tennessee holds a 11-6-2 series lead against the Tigers, but Clemson won the most recent meeting, 27-14 in the 2003 Peach Bowl.
–Field Level Media