Clemson and Kentucky had their bowl sights set higher than a trip to Nashville. Close late-season losses, however, relegated them to a Music City Bowl matchup for the second time in four years.
The Tigers, led by ACC player of the year C.J. Spiller, try to avoid a fourth straight bowl loss and prevent the Wildcats from winning a fourth consecutive postseason game when the teams meet at LP Field on Dec. 27.
Clemson (8-5) reached the ACC championship game against then-No. 10 Georgia Tech on Dec. 5, with the school's first league title since 1991 and a spot in the Orange Bowl at stake. Despite 233 yards rushing and four touchdowns from Spiller, the Tigers lost 39-34 on Jonathan Dwyer's 15-yard TD run with 1:20 remaining.
Defeats in its final two games put a damper on Clemson's first full season under coach Dabo Swinney, who replaced Tommy Bowden on Oct. 13, 2008, and guided the Tigers in the final seven games last season.
"We've come a long way in one year," Swinney said. "This is where Clemson is supposed to be. This is our standard. This is our expectation. So, hopefully we can grow from this."
Kentucky (7-5) settled for the Music City Bowl after a 30-24 overtime loss to Tennessee on Nov. 28. The Wildcats failed to win eight regular-season games for the first time since 1984, and were left with their third trip to Nashville in the past four years.
"We had our sights higher. Still, it'll be a great game," said Kentucky receiver Randall Cobb, a Tennessee native.
While Nashville may not have been Kentucky's first choice of destinations, there was plenty for the Wildcats to be proud of this season. They became bowl eligible in four straight seasons for the first time in school history, and earned their first win at Auburn since 1961 and first at Georgia since 1977.
"I think the important thing is that it's our fourth straight bowl," coach Rich Brooks said. "It's a surrounding we're familiar with. Now we just need to keep our bowl and postseason winning streak alive."
That streak stands at three and started with a 28-20 victory over Clemson in the 2006 Music City Bowl. The Wildcats followed with another victory in Nashville over Florida State in 2007 and beat East Carolina in last season's Liberty Bowl.
Kentucky senior running back Alfonso Smith had a positive take on another Music City Bowl appearance for his team.
"Everyone will be watching that Sunday. It'll be like Sunday night football," he said.
The player in this game that will draw the most attention is the versatile Spiller, who finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting and is the first Tiger to win ACC player of the year honors since Michael Dean Perry in 1987. He ranks fourth nationally in all-purpose yards with 194.0 per game and is the only player in the country to score a touchdown in every game this year, finishing with a school-record 20.
A finalist for the Doak Walker Award as the nation's best running back, Spiller has 7,416 career all-purpose yards, third-best in NCAA history. He accounted for touchdowns five different ways this season -- 11 rushing, four receiving, four on kickoff returns, one on a punt return and one on a pass.
"I saw a lot of (Spiller) the year we played him when he was a true freshman. He is a real talent," Brooks told Kentucky's official Web site. "He has speed and decent size. He is also a great kickoff return guy. He has an NCAA record of seven kickoff returns for a touchdown. That is pretty impressive."
Even the best defenses had trouble containing Spiller and Kentucky struggled against the run all season, giving up 183.1 yards per game to rank 100th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
Kentucky's defense will also be without its best player. Linebacker Sam Maxwell, who had 80 tackles and tied for second in the SEC with six interceptions, is out following shoulder surgery.
Injuries have been an issue all season for the Wildcats, most notably the one to starting quarterback Mike Hartline, sidelined since injuring his left knee against South Carolina on Oct. 10. Although freshman Morgan Newton led Kentucky to five wins in seven games as a starter, the team would surely like to get Hartline back for at least spot duty and a return has not been ruled out.
In an effort to minimize mistakes by the inexperienced Newton, Kentucky relied on its running game. Tailback Derrick Locke and all-purpose performer Cobb have combined for 1,381 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns, with Cobb averaging 6.4 yards per carry.