GRADES: Tigers end bowl skid

NASHVILLE - It wasn't a performance for the ages but had we told you in August Clemson would win nine games, including a bowl, play in the ACC Championship game this season - you'd have taken it, wouldn't you?

Absolutely you would have. At least if you have any sanity and realism as a Clemson fan.

With all of that in mind, here's the final breakdown of Sunday night's 21-13 win over Kentucky in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl:

OFFENSE: B
In a game that felt like Kentucky had the ball for most of the night (the Wildcats ran 68 plays to the Tigers' 47), Clemson's offense made the most of its limited opportunities, rushing for 180 yards on 33 carries and doing just enough in the passing game to squeak out a win. Jamie Harper had a big night (70+ yards and a touchdown), showing glimpses of things to come next season after the departure of C.J. Spiller to the NFL. The offensive line did a solid job opening holes against a defense that had given up big yards on the ground all season. And while that may not sound like a big deal, remember what happened three years ago when Clemson abandoned the run only to get run out of Nashville on the wrong end of a 28-20 score? This staff wouldn't let that happen again as just 14 passes were thrown the entire game and it paid off in the Tigers grinding out a hard-fought win. It wasn't fancy, but it didn't have to be.

DEFENSE: B
After giving up a touchdown on the opening drive of the game in what seemed to be amazingly easy for Kentucky, it was essentially lights out as Clemson gave up just six points the rest of the way. Kevin Steele used DeAndre McDaniel closer to the line of scrimmage to help contain Kentucky's "Wildcat" formation and it paid huge dividends throughout the second half in the win. The Tigers also did a good job of pressuring QB Morgan Newton, even though several sack opportunities were missed due to poor tackling. Kentucky ended up with just 277 yards of total offense, with only 110 through the air. Kavell Conner's forced fumble was the only turnover of the game and it was a big one- setting up the final touchdown which gave the Tigers a semi-comfortable eight point advantage. It was a performance that reminded you of what the Tigers did the first half of the season as the defensive line played much better, the Tigers were once again extremely physical while also playing under control for four quarters. Add it all up and equals a solid defensive performance and a "B" grade.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C-
There were no major mistakes on Clemson's special teams even though two punts were extremely short, setting up Kentucky with excellent field position. Richard Jackson also missed a 44-yard field into a stiff wind. Outside of that- Clemson's coverage units did an outstanding job on Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke, Kentucky's two primary weapons on offense. Not a great performance overall, but not a bad one either.

COACHING: B
Dabo Swinney wasn't going to let his team play uninspired football like it did three years in the very same game against the very same team and it showed in every phase of the game Sunday evening. The offensive game plan was simple- stay grounded and let the playmakers do their thing- which they eventually did courtesy of two big Jamie Harper runs and a couple of nifty moves by C.J. Spiller both on the ground and through the air. Defensively, Kevin Steele made the adjustments he needed to in order to contain Kentucky's "Wildcat" package, which was also good to see. But the real story was Clemson's overall attitude. The Tigers hadn't won a bowl game in four years and even though this wasn't the first, or second or even third choice in terms of postseason destinations for this football team, it didn't matter. Clemson was well-prepared, very much motivated and focused on the task at hand throughout Sunday night's win. That alone speaks volumes about the coaching job done for this game.

OVERALL: B
Simply put, it was a good way to end a good season. Dabo described it in his postgame press conference as a "strong foundation" for the future, and he's exactly right as this first-year staff came together to produce an Atlantic Division championship and a nine win season. While things won't be any easier next year with an exponentially more-difficult schedule, it's clear the Tigers are headed down the right track under Dabo's direction. Clemson was smarter, more physical and just overall a better team in most phases of the game than what it was in previous years under Tommy Bowden and it showed for most of the 2009 season. So what's next? Life without C.J. Spiller, a host of talented freshman wide receivers competing for two starting spots, a potential quarterback controversy and a big decision upcoming for DeAndre McDaniel. Is it September yet?

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