Tennessee is vying for an 11th win and a possible final top 5 ranking in the polls. Both teams are trying to overcome embarrassing losses in their last bowl appearances. Tennessee was routed by Maryland in last year's Peach Bowl 30-3 and Clemson was whipped by Texas Tech 55-15 in last year's Tangerine Bowl.
In 2003, Tennessee racked up wins against Fresno State, Marshall, Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, Duke, Miami, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. The Vols only losses came to Georgia and Auburn.
Here are my 5 keys and prediction for the big game Friday afternoon.
Timing Is Everything
41 days in between games is a long time for any team, but it is a particular concern for a team like Clemson. The Tiger offense thrives on precise timing in the passing game that can truly only be simulated in a game situation.
The timing starts with the offensive line, moves to the running backs, and is accentuated in the quarterback to wide receiver connections. Clemson's timing against Georgia Tech early in the season was spectacular. The Tigers also finished the year with great precision in carving up Florida State, Duke, and South Carolina.
But this timing was disrupted severely when the Tigers played N.C. State and Maryland. The Terrapins are of major concern, considering the Tennessee defense will play man coverage with physical defensive backs just as Maryland did.
"Yeah, that's (timing) a little tough especially when you consider the speed that we are going to be seeing on defense, especially when you consider that we are playing turf. You can't simulate that in practice and it will probably be something that we have to adjust to in the game, but I think we can do that," quarterback Charlie Whitehurst said this week.
We will know early on in the game with this key, and it holds the biggest importance in the outcome of the game in my opinion.
Turn the Field Over
Dustin Colquitt is a one man wrecking crew. If you don't believe me, ask the University of South Carolina and Lou Holtz. Colquitt defeated the Gamecocks early in the season with his outstanding punting in a game that eventually went into overtime before Tennessee won.
Colquitt averages a robust 45.9 yards per punt compared to Cole Chason's 38.3 yards per punt. In addition, Tennessee ranked 4th in the SEC in punt return average at 12.5 yards per return compared to Clemson's 6.5 yard per return.
By doing that simple math on an exchange of punts, Clemson will lose 14 yards of field position if the averages are used. To compound the problem for Clemson, the Volunteers are 4th in the SEC on defense in terms of giving up first downs. That means the Vols are doing an outstanding job of getting teams to have to punt the ball over to them throughout the game.
The solution? The easiest and most feasible way to overcome allowing Tennessee to continuously turn the field over on field position is to pick up first downs. Regardless of whether or not the Tigers score on every possession, the offense needs to pick up 2 first downs per series just to offset the huge advantage Tennessee has in the punting game.
On defense, forcing the Volunteers into a couple of 3 and outs will also help maintain a short field in front of the Tigers. And finally, Chason needs to at least punt to his average and avoid a shank like he has been known to do on occasion.
|Justin Miller's play Friday will be critical for the Tigers against Tennessee.|
Tennessee has quietly put together a balanced offensive attack this year. Tennessee has averaged 221 yards through the air (4th in the SEC) and 147 yards on the ground (7th in the SEC).
The Volunteers have put together solid passing numbers despite not having a wide receiver in the top 10 of the SEC in receptions per game or receiving yards per game. Tennessee running back Cedric Houston has averaged 65.5 yards a game on the ground (5th in the SEC) while splitting time with Jabari Davis.
Casey Clausen has had a solid, if unspectacular senior season by throwing for 215 yards per game (3rd in the SEC).
Surprisingly, however, I feel the Tigers must take away the running game for Tennessee while applying constant pressure to Clausen if we are going to win Friday. How do you do that? The simple answer is to blitz, blitz, blitz. Allowing Tennessee to grind up the clock by running the football will spell disaster Friday as will allowing the experienced Clausen to sit back in the pocket and throw the underneath balls the Vols like to do so much.
Disruption will be the key, and that disruption revolves around pinning your ears back and bull rushing the offensive backfield. Defensive Coordinator John Lovett does not typically blitz more often than not, but this may be a game where Lovett has to in order to keep the Volunteer offense off the field. That will put a tremendous amount of pressure on the Tiger secondary, but Justin Miller, Tye Hill, Jamaal Fudge, and Travis Pugh have been playing their best football of the year late in the season.
Make The Good Play Great
In the 4 games the Tigers have lost this year, the recurring theme has been a lack of playmaking at the opportune times. Clemson had opportunities in 3 of the 4 losses this year (excluding Wake Forest) to win the game had they come up with the big play at the pivotal times.
In Clemson's biggest wins this year (Georgia Tech, Virginia, Florida State, and South Carolina) the Tigers seized on huge, game swinging momentum changers. Sometimes those plays were made early (GT and USC) and sometimes those plays were made later in the game (UVA, FSU).
Tennessee is too good on defense to think that you can sustain 10-15 play drives consistent enough to put enough points on the board to win Friday. So the Tigers are going to have to make some big plays offensively and defensively in order to stay in the game. That may mean breaking a tackle on a run to get a big gain or getting a key downfield block on a pass reception to break the play for a touchdown. It may also mean causing a fumble on a sack and picking it up and running for a score on defense.
The bottom line for the Tigers to win Friday is that we are going to have to make the big plays instead of Tennessee. All things equal, the Volunteers are the better team. The better team, however, does not always win if the underdog can make the plays…and the Tigers have been on both sides of that spectrum this year.
150 Yards…Over And Under
The final piece to the puzzle on Friday will be the magic 150-yard number. Clemson is 6-0 this year when the Tigers rush for 150 or more yards in a game. The Tigers are also 6-2 on the year when they keep the opponent under 150 yards rushing.
Tennessee will no doubt try to establish themselves as the more physical team up front on both sides of the ball and until proven otherwise we must assume that they are.
Clemson has done a better job rushing the football down the stretch, averaging 163 yards per game over the last 5 games of the season. The Tigers, however, have had some glaring weaknesses running the football in games versus Georgia (35 yards) and Maryland (10 yards), both of whom are arguably the most similar to Tennessee than any other teams on the Tiger's schedule.
And the Volunteers are bigger and stronger on the offensive front than just about everybody on the Tigers schedule minus Georgia and Florida State. The Tigers were awful stopping the run versus Georgia (197 yards) but were outstanding versus Florida State (11 yards). The question remains…which Clemson defense will show up Friday?
Tennessee, at least publicly, has quieted down the rhetoric they were spewing in the week after getting the Peach Bowl berth. The Volunteers have said all the right things, and you have to assume that they mean what they say and that they are not taking Clemson lightly.
Clemson has also said all the right things, giving a ton of credit to the Volunteers while remaining focused on winning this game and moving into the top 25 in the national polls.
So, it really is hard to get a read on who emotionally is more prepared for the game. Human nature would tell you that Clemson has more to gain and less to lose and will approach the game in that manner. How much of a difference that will make is yet to be seen.
The biggest concern I have is the layoff and the timing of the offense for the Tigers. It is almost impossible for me, or the coaches and players, to truly know how well the Tigers will adapt to that layoff. We will know very early in the game whether it is a detriment or not, and I fear that it may as we get closer and closer to game time.
If the Tigers play even close to the way they played down the stretch, we will have a win under our belts Friday night. If not…it could get ugly.
I fear we won't have a great game, but it is so hard to ignore those last 3 games and just how well this team was playing. This pick may be more with my heart instead of my head….but Clemson wins a close one Friday night.
Clemson 24 Tennessee 21