Plenty of unique angles accompany Vols, Tigers in Orange Bowl

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel, left, and Clemson counterpart Dabo Swinney share a laugh Thursday while standing beside the Orange Bowl championship trophy. The No. 6 Volunteers and No. 7 Tigers will collide inside Hard Rock Stadium on Friday night.

DANIA BEACH, Fla. — Technically, Friday night's showdown between No. 6 Tennessee and No. 7 Clemson will take place at the 89th Capital One Orange Bowl inside Hard Rock Stadium.

Yet other monikers could certainly apply to this matchup:

"The Really Orange Orange Bowl."

"The We Lost To South Carolina Bowl."

"The New Starting Quarterback Bowl."

There is even the "Opt-Out Bowl" aspect given that the Tigers (11-2) are playing without defensive end Myles Murphy and that the Volunteers (10-2) will not have linebacker Jeremy Banks nor receivers Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman.

Whatever the angle, both Tennessee coach Josh Heupel and Clemson counterpart Dabo Swinney insist their programs are invested heading into this game. After all, each did bounce back in quite the resounding fashion after losing to Shane Beamer's Gamecocks, with Heupel's Vols routing Vanderbilt 56-0 on Nov. 26, and with Swinney's Tigers thumping North Carolina 39-10 on Dec. 3 at the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game in Charlotte, North Carolina.

"These players didn't come into this and just inherit it," Heupel said Thursday during the final Orange Bowl media event. "They've worked for it from the moment that we got on campus. That's the competitive nature. It's their connection to one another. Our players were able to reset after that game. Was there disappointment? Absolutely, and you could feel it in the building when they came in the following Monday, but they were able to reset.

"This is an important game to our football team. We talk about finishing. We talk about legacy. This group that is graduating and heading on can finish it and leave a strong legacy at Tennessee."

Clemson has already established a legacy in the Swinney era, participating in every College Football Playoff during the 2015-20 seasons and winning national championships in 2016 and 2018. In fact, it's hard to find a more impressive postseason team over the past decade.

"We're 8-2 in our last 10 bowl games, and bowl wins create a lot of momentum in recruiting and going into spring ball," Tigers defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin said. "These opportunities of playing in an Orange Bowl are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. People can coach and play their whole lives and never get this kind of opportunity.

"These are really special moments, and there are games that you will remember forever and that fans won't let you forget."

Friday night is certainly an opportunity for the two quarterbacks, with Tennessee fifth-year senior Joe Milton III making his second start of the season for an injured Hendon Hooker, and with Clemson freshman Cade Klubnik making the first start of his young career. Klubnik replaced junior DJ Uiagalelei during the first quarter of the ACC championship game and completed 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown, which resulted in him earning the starting role for this game and Uiagalelei entering the NCAA transfer portal.

Swinney said Thursday that the 6-foot-2 Klubnik arrived in January weighing 179 pounds but is now close to 200.

"I think this game will set up the fact that we're going to have a really good team next year," Klubnik said. "We're returning a bunch on offense, and we're going to return a bunch on defense. I just think this game will leap us into the 2023 season. It's a big game for us."

Milton completed a more modest 11 of 21 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown against Vanderbilt but guided an offense that amassed 513 yards behind a school single-game rushing record of 11.7 yards per carry. Hooker is leaving Tennessee as the most efficient quarterback in program history, earning Southeastern Conference offensive player of the year and finishing fifth in Heisman Trophy balloting.

"There are always going to be subtle differences, because every guy is different," Vols quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle said of a Milton-led offense. "They're both extremely talented and intelligent and can make all the throws. We didn't pull things back for Hendon, and we're not pulling things back for Joe.

"They're slightly different in the way they operate, but they're both really good quarterbacks. Joe's arm strength is not typical, and it's fun to work with."

Halzle added that having the extra time between the victory over Vanderbilt and the bowl has allowed for Milton and the receiving trio of Bru McCoy, Ramel Keyton and Squirrel White to develop some chemistry. Milton didn't throw a single pass to McCoy during the regular season.

Whether Tennessee's defense can absorb the decision by Banks to focus on his NFL path could be another matter, as his absence during the 63-38 loss at South Carolina was noticeable.

"I think at the end of the day that's kind of the landscape of what happens at times inside your program when you're having success and during the course of bowl season," Heupel said of the opt outs. "You can see that across the country. The unique thing is you have a couple extra weeks to prepare and plan for those situations. You're not dealing with it in a seven-day span.

"We've lost some really good players, but I think that provides some unique opportunities."

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