The long-awaited quarterback switch for Clemson did not significantly affect their performance in the Orange Bowl.
Cade Klubnik, a highly anticipated freshman, started his first game after DJ Uiagalelei left for Oregon State, and the Tigers moved the ball rather well before failing repeatedly once they entered Tennessee territory.
On nine of its first ten drives, Clemson reached Tennessee’s side of the 50 yard line, but only managed to score six points during that time. Three field goals were missed, a fake field goal went horribly wrong, the red zone clock was mishandled at the end of the half, and a down was lost.
Tennessee sent the ball into the end zone behind Joe Milton’s arm as Clemson continued to struggle. After Hendon Hooker suffered a season-ending knee injury, Milton, who had backed up Hooker for the previous two seasons, got his second start.
Milton has a powerful arm, but accuracy has been a problem for him all along. Milton was the game’s top quarterback in this one. He threw a number of exquisite deep balls as well as incisive throws into little spaces for third-down conversions. Late in the first quarter, he connected on a touchdown pass to Bru McCoy to start the scoring.
Milton added two more touchdown passes in the second half. One came with Tennessee leading 21-6 with a few seconds remaining in the third quarter. And with 10:01 left to play, Clemson finally scored a touchdown to pull within 21-14, but Milton answered by connecting with Ramel Keyton in the back of the defence for a 46-yard touchdown to retake the lead at 28-14.
When it appeared that Clemson had a chance, Tennessee responded forcefully with the Milton-to-Keyton connection. Just 1:27 had passed after Klubnik’s touchdown run for Clemson brought the score to 21-14 before the touchdown. It knocked the wind out of Clemson’s sails and turned out to be the nail in the coffin for Tennessee’s outstanding campaign.
Best season in Tennessee in 20 years
Since winning the national title in 1998, Tennessee had not triumphed in a significant bowl contest. And with the victory in the Orange Bowl, Tennessee became the first team since 2001 to win 11 games.
For a programme that was embroiled in scandal only a few years ago, it has been a remarkable comeback. Josh Heupel, the head coach, joined from UCF and implemented a quick-strike offence.
In Heupel’s two seasons, Tennessee has an 18-8 record and has won 13 of their last 16 contests. During the regular season, UT rose as high as No. 1 and remained in the College Football Playoff conversation far into November.
Although Hooker and a number of other great players will go to the NFL, a wealth of talent will still be back in 2023. That includes Milton, who will contend with five-star freshman Nico Iamaleava, who has already been on school as an early enrollee, for the starting position.
It’s difficult not to be optimistic about Tennessee’s program’s future, especially with the expansion of the postseason in a few years. Being in the same division as Georgia is extremely difficult, but if the playoff field increases to 12 teams in 2024, there will be considerably greater access to a national championship.
Being in the same division as Georgia is extremely difficult, but if the playoff field increases to 12 teams in 2024, there will be considerably greater access to a national championship.
What will Clemson do next?
It was a dismal end to another up-and-down season for Clemson. The Tigers’ six-year winning streak in the ACC was ended in 2021 as a result of their severe offensive difficulties. Clemson (11-3) returned to the top of the ACC this season despite its offensive struggles, but it’s difficult to ignore the program’s long-term prospects.
Before these last two seasons, Clemson hadn’t lost three or more games in back-to-back seasons since 2010 and 2011.
Klubnik is only a true freshman, but the game on Friday night showed just how talented he is. However, the Clemson coaches also placed a tremendous amount of pressure on him, and they did it on the huge stage of a New Year’s Six bowl game. Klubnik ultimately attempted 54 passes and 20 runs. Despite the fact that he had his moments, the offense as a whole seemed disconnected.
Although head coach Dabo Swinney appears to have a bright young quarterback in his system, it’s reasonable to question whether his entire offensive strategy could need some new perspective.