‘Really unique’ season for Vols to continue against Clemson in the Orange Bowl

AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee's Aaron Beasley, right, celebrates a fumble recovery with fellow linebacker Solon Page III, left, and defensive lineman Joshua Josephs during a home win against UT Martin on Oct. 22.

Welcome to the most orange of Orange Bowls.

Tennessee’s 10-2 regular season was rewarded Sunday afternoon when the No. 6 Volunteers were selected to play No. 7 Clemson on the night of Dec. 30 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. It’s the first New Year’s Six bowl invitation for the Vols since the implementation of the College Football Playoff and the New Year’s Six bowl structure during the 2014 season.

“I’m really proud of our program and the steps that we’ve taken in the last two years,” Tennessee second-year coach Josh Heupel said on a Zoom call. “This season was a really unique one, and I’m so proud of the accomplishments that we had on the football field. It is truly a team that’s connected and competes extremely hard, and we’re really proud of the steps that we’re making.

“I know, having played and coached in the Orange Bowl, that this bowl is as good as it gets. It’s a very unique and special opportunity for our football program.”

This is the Orange Bowl’s highest-rated matchup of the CFP era when it hasn’t hosted a national semifinal.

The Vols will be making their fifth Orange Bowl appearance and their first since the 1997 season, when they were thumped by Nebraska 42-17 in Peyton Manning’s college finale. Tennessee’s lone Orange Bowl victory transpired after the 1938 season, when the Vols completed an 11-0 run with a 17-0 blanking of Oklahoma and were recognized as national champions by multiple voting entities at that time.

Tennessee will enter the Orange Bowl leading the nation with 538.1 yards and 47.3 points per game, but the Vols will be without offensive coordinator Alex Golesh, who was announced Sunday as the new head coach at South Florida.

“Losing Alex is something we’re excited about,” Heupel said, “because I think it speaks to the growth inside of our program — the success that we’re having on the field and the style of play and the culture that we have inside of our building. For him to have an opportunity to go run his own program is one that I’m excited about and our staff is excited about.

“In the coming days, we’ll understand how we want to fill that out on the recruiting trail and then as we get into game preparation as well, but I’m excited for him, and I think it speaks so well to what our players and our staff have done in a short amount of time here at Tennessee.”

Clemson improved to 11-2 and punched its Orange Bowl ticket with Saturday night’s 39-10 shellacking of North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game. The Vols and Tigers were in the CFP picture before sustaining upset losses against South Carolina in late November.

This is the second straight playoff miss by Clemson after six consecutive appearances that yielded national championships during the 2016 and 2018 seasons.

“Both of these teams are playoff-caliber teams,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “There are four spots, and it’s really, really hard to be in the final four. We’re fortunate that we’ve been there a few times and have had some success there, but it’s really hard, and you don’t always control that.

“You could have the same record as someone else and someone not put you in there, and if being 11-2 and your league champion and going to the Orange Bowl doesn’t make you happy, then I don’t know what to say to you.”

Tennessee and Clemson have played 19 times, with the Vols holding an 11-6-2 series edge, but they’ve met only once in the past 45 seasons — in the Peach Bowl following the 2003 season, with the Tigers prevailing 27-14.

Hooker update

Tennessee sixth-year senior quarterback Hendon Hooker will learn within the next couple days whether he is among the four Heisman Trophy finalists who will receive an invitation to Saturday night’s ceremony in New York City.

“Hendon certainly deserves to be at that ceremony,” Heupel said. “He’s certainly one of the best players in college football. The growth of our program is a direct correlation to what he’s done and what he’s invested and how he’s helped build the culture inside of our locker room.

“He’s a dynamic playmaker who has played his best in the biggest moments, and I certainly hope that he has that opportunity.”

Hooker, whose season ended with an ACL tear in the 63-38 loss at South Carolina on Nov. 19, has delayed the surgery in case he does get an invite.

Who’s with me?

Although the Orange Bowl is one of the most appealing matchups of the postseason, it is not immune to players from either team choosing to opt out and get an early start on their NFL plans.

“I certainly expect most of my guys to be there,” Heupel said. “There are guys who are still gaining information and guys who were nicked up on the back half of the season, and we’ll see where they get to here in the coming days and make a smart decision for them and their future, but this is a special football game, and it’s important to our program. I certainly expect to have a majority, if not a full roster, when we get down there for it.”

Said Swinney: “It’s not only an opportunity to play but to have an experience that is really special.”

In the money

Heupel will receive a $200,000 bonus for guiding the Vols to a New Year’s Six bowl, and more money could be coming after that. If Tennessee finishes in the top five, Heupel would earn an additional $150,000, while a top-10 finish would result in a $100,000 bonus.

Tennessee’s assistants will get a bonus of 12% of their respective salaries for this Orange Bowl trip, which is a bump from the 8.33% bonuses they received for reaching last year’s Music City Bowl.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

Updated with more information at 7 p.m. on Dec. 4, 2022.