Orange Bowl: Key players, X factors for Tennessee, Clemson

Freshman Cade Klubnik is in line to make his first start as Clemson's quarterback in the Orange Bowl. Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports

There's no truth to the rumor that Shane Beamer will perform the opening coin toss for this year's Capital One Orange Bowl, which will mark only the fourth time Clemson and Tennessee have met in football over the past 75 years.

Had it not been for Beamer's South Carolina Gamecocks, either the Tigers or Vols easily could have been in the College Football Playoff. South Carolina shocked Tennessee 63-38 in the next-to-last week of the regular season. Then in the regular-season finale, the Gamecocks snapped a seven-game losing streak to Clemson and beat the Tigers 31-30 in Death Valley.

So here we are with the most "orange" Orange Bowl in the game's storied history.

Dabo Swinney has built a monster at Clemson, so much so that 11 wins and an ACC championship is seen as a ho-hum season. Josh Heupel, in just his second season leading the Vols, guided Tennessee to its first 10-win regular season since 2003.

The most intriguing part of this game will be the quarterback position. Tennessee's Joe Milton III took over for Hendon Hooker, who was one of the Heisman Trophy favorites when he was injured in the South Carolina game. For Clemson, freshman Cade Klubnik came off the bench to lead his team to a 39-10 win over North Carolina in the ACC championship game. The Tigers' starter all season long, DJ Uiagalelei, has decided to enter the transfer portal after being benched against the Tar Heels.

No. 6 Tennessee vs. No. 7 Clemson
Capital One Orange Bowl
When: Friday, Dec. 30 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida
How to watch: ESPN and ESPN App
Opening line via Caesars Sportsbook: Clemson by 4.5


Key player: Nobody in Tennessee's program wanted Joe Milton III to get his shot this way. But with star quarterback Hendon Hooker going down with a season-ending ACL tear, Milton gets a chance to show what he's got on a big stage. It's also an opportunity to see how much Milton has improved from a year ago, when he opened the 2021 season as the Vols' starter but was replaced by Hooker. Milton's arm strength is incredible, and at 245 pounds, he's a bruising runner in short-yardage situations. The challenge for Milton is accuracy. He's been prone to overthrow receivers and rifle passes that were hard to catch when he could have used more finesse. The feeling around Tennessee's program is that Milton has polished up his game in all phases. The Vols will need that version of Milton against a talented Clemson defense.

X factor: The Vols' pass defense was shaky for much of the season. They're ranked 127th nationally out of 131 teams (allowing 287 passing yards per game) and gave up 47 passes of 10 yards or longer, which was last in the SEC. With Klubnik set to make his first start at quarterback for Clemson, the onus will be on the Vols' pass rush as much as (or more than) the secondary. Tennessee needs to pressure Klubnik and keep him guessing. The Vols had 27 sacks in 12 games, but were limited to two in their losses to South Carolina and Georgia. Getting edge rusher Byron Young going again would be huge for the Vols. He leads the team with five sacks and 14 quarterback pressures, but wasn't as productive down the stretch.

How Tennessee wins: The Vols have followed the same blueprint all season. Get an early lead, get the opposing defense on its heels, hit some big pass plays, then finish the deal with the running game. Tennessee has scored 38 or more points in 10 of its 12 games. The Vols love to go for the knockout punch. But in their two losses this season, they fell behind early (24-6 to Georgia and 21-7 to South Carolina) and weren't nearly as good playing from behind. Getting Milton into a flow in the first quarter will be critical for Tennessee, which means running the ball effectively and creating some manageable third-down situations will be equally critical. The Vols want to play fast and set the tone early, but doing that without Hooker could prove challenging. That's why Tennessee can't afford to waste possessions in this game.


Key player: Quarterback Cade Klubnik. While most Clemson fans are likely to spend the time between now and the Orange Bowl thinking of what might have been had Klubnik been the Tigers' starter all along, there's still the very real question of whether his star turn in the ACC championship game marked the start of a new era or just a good game against a bad defense. Yes, Klubnik was an elite recruit with tons of talent, but until the North Carolina game, he hadn't impressed on the field in limited reps on game days and hadn't won over the coaching staff enough to unseat DJ Uiagalelei as the Tigers' starter, even when the offense struggled. Remember that the Tar Heels had one of the worst pass defenses in the ACC in 2022, and they were down two key defensive backs in the matchup against Clemson. It seems clear Klubnik was a real improvement over Uiagalelei -- but the Orange Bowl will tell us much more about whether he's good enough to lead Clemson back to the type of explosiveness it had under Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence.

X factor: Cornerback Nate Wiggins. Yes, Klubnik was the big story from the ACC title game, but the best player on the field was Wiggins, who had a pass breakup in the end zone, a blocked field goal and a pick-six in the win over Drake Maye and UNC. Wiggins was expected to blossom into a superstar this season, but he got off to a rocky start, including a brutal performance against Wake Forest in September. But he made steady progress throughout the season, culminating with the monster performance against Carolina. He'll need another big game as part of the Tigers' up-and-down secondary if Clemson wants to slow a terrific Tennessee passing game.

How Clemson wins: The Tigers need to follow the same formula they used in the ACC championship game, only with Klubnik on the field from the opening snap. Tennessee's run defense is terrific -- 10th nationally in EPA, fourth in yards before contact per carry and 11th in run stuffs -- so Clemson can't rely on Will Shipley & Co. to key a ground-and-pound win. The passing game needs to be functional, and now that's on Klubnik's shoulders. On the flip side, Clemson's D didn't exactly stop North Carolina in the ACC title game, but it made big plays in the red zone and won the turnover battle. That might be the best-case scenario against Tennessee too.