My pick: UT 27, Clemson 20

Clemson ranks 16th nationally in passing offense, averaging 286.8 yards per game.

Tennessee ranks 15th nationally in pass defense, allowing just 181.1 yards per game.

Thus, the confrontation between the Tigers' receiving corps and the Vols' defensive backs should make for an intriguing matchup in Friday's Peach Bowl game.

Clemson boasts some of the biggest -- and best -- receivers UT has seen all season. Kevin Youngblood, a 6-5, 215-pounder, caught 67 passes for 833 yards. Derrick Hamilton, a 6-4, 205-pounder, added 57 receptions for 957 yards and 10 touchdowns. No. 3 receiver Airese Currie added 38 grabs for 510 yards, nearly matching the production of UT's No. 1 receiver, James Banks (39 catches for 584 yards).

Blessed with such talented weapons at wideout, Tiger quarterback Charlie Whitehurst has posted slightly better passing stats than Vol counterpart Casey Clausen. Whitehurst completed 62.6 percent of his passes to Clausen's 56.6. Whitehurst passed for 3,315 yards to Clausen's 2,584. Whitehurst compiled a 138.8 efficiency rating to Clausen's 135.5.

The catch is, Clemson probably hasn't faced a secondary as good as Tennessee's. Strong safety Gibril Wilson played like an All-American in November. Cornerback Jason Allen (6-2, 200) has the size and speed to get physical with Clemson's big wideouts. Free safety Rashad Baker and cornerback Jabari Greer are experienced seniors who know all the tricks of the trade. So does nickel back Mark Jones, another senior.

Still, Clemson likely will pass for a bunch of yards. The key is this: Can the Tigers can score touchdowns once they get inside Tennessee's 20-yard line, where space restrictions make it easier to cover receivers?

I don't think they can. I see Clemson passing for around 250 yards but struggling once it moves into scoring territory. I believe the Tigers will have to settle for two touchdowns and two field goals.

Meanwhile, the Vol offense also will be challenged. Clemson's defensive statistics are remarkably similar to Tennessee's defensive statistics. UT allowed 137.1 rushing yards per game, Clemson 139.5. UT allowed 181.1 passing yards per game, Clemson 189.5. UT allowed 17.7 points per game, Clemson 19.7.

Tennessee's attack showed some explosiveness in blasting Mississippi State (59-21) and Vanderbilt (48-0) in Games 10 and 11, but sputtered in blustery weather at Kentucky in Game 12. In the climate-controlled atmosphere of the Georgia Dome, the Vols should do better. The problem will be getting the ball away from Clemson's offense. The Big Orange had this same problem with a previous ACC foe, managing just 23 points against ball-hogging Duke.

Given UT's pathetic performance in last year's 30-3 Peach Bowl loss to Maryland, many Vol fans are worried about another flat effort vs. Clemson. Based on my conversations with the players, I think this year's team is much more focused. Last year's team was merely playing out the string at the end of an 8-5 disappointment. This year's team has a chance to win 11 games and finish in the top five nationally. The mood on the team is entirely different than it was a year ago.

I look for Clausen to go out with a bang, passing for around 300 yards in his final college game. I see receiver Mark Jones having a big game in his finale, as well. Tailback Cedric Houston ran well in Game 12 at Kentucky, so maybe he's ready to snap out of the doldrums that enveloped him for most of the season.

Whenever two roughly equal teams meet, special-teams play can be crucial. UT's James Wilhoit is 17 of 23 on field goals, after hitting 12 of his final 13. Clemson's Aaron Hunt is 16 of 22, after hitting 13 of his last 14. The big difference is in punting. Tennessee's Dustin Colquitt averaged 45.9 yards per punt, whereas Clemson's Cole Chason averaged just 38.3 yards. That means UT should gain nearly eight yards on each exchange of punts. This could prove decisive.

My pick: Tennessee 27, Clemson 20.


Inside Tennessee Top Stories