Both Tennessee and Clemson overcame a midseason crisis to finish strong and now need to carry that momentum over to the off season. Each team also needs to prove itself in the post season arena after suffering embarrassing bowl losses last season. The Tigers were trounced by Texas Tech 55-15 in the Tangerine Bowl and Tennessee was mauled by Maryland 30-3 in the Peach Bowl.
There is also a parallel to the 2001 post season, as Clemson unloaded on Louisiana Tech, 49-24, in the Humanitarian Bowl and Tennessee manhandled Michigan, 45-17, in the Citrus Bowl. The prevailing post season pattern began in the 2000 when Clemson was beaten by Virginia Tech, 41-20, in the Gator Bowl and Kansas State toppled Tennessee, 35-20, in the Cotton Bowl.
If the one-sided trend continues in Atlanta on Friday — the last six bowl games played by Clemson and Tennessee has produced a 26-point average margin of victory — the fans are more likely to be on their way to the exits instead of on pins and needles. However, at least half the crowd of what figures to be an evenly divided house will want to stay and savor the moment. That's because the last two times each program ventured into the Dome they were handed painful defeats. In addition to Tennessee's setback against Maryland, the worst bowl loss the Vols have ever experienced, UT also lost to LSU in the 2001 SEC Championship game with a national title bid on the line. Likewise, Clemson lost a Peach Bowl decision to Auburn, 21-17, in 1997 and to Mississippi State, 17-7, in 1999.
To understand the underlying dynamics of this game and why it means more to both team than your standard run of the mill midlevel bowl outing, it's essential to apply that background. That is also why the game has taken on some uncommonly hostile overtones. Both teams have a ton of incentive and will lay it all on the line. But only one can come away with a victory which means this showdown is survival of the fittest — mentally, physically and psychologically.
Tommy Bowden has tried to sell this as David vs. Goliath battle with his unranked Tigers playing the underdog against super power Tennessee. Phillip Fulmer is reminding his team how far it has come from the depths plumbed in 2002 and how difficult the off season would be with consecutive Peach Bowl defeats. Returning Tennessee to a top\-ten ranking is essential to the Vols' stature. It's also the best response this team can make after being disrespected as the fifth pick in the SEC bowl pecking order despite finishing the regular season No. 7 in the BCS standings.
Tennessee (10-2) enters this contest as a 4.5 point favorite which is a tribute to Clemson's strong finish and superior showing in games against common opponents. The Tigers beat Duke 41-7 and South Carolina 63-17 while the Vols struggled to a 24-6 win over Duke and a 26-23 overtime win over South Carolina. Clemson lost to Georgia 30-0 while Tennessee was beaten by the Bulldogs 41-14.
However, Clemson was also blasted by Wake Forest, 45-17, on Nov. 1 just a week before it upset Florida State 26-10. So this is a team that has experienced it's share of ups and downs this year. That might not be a good sign with 40 days since its last competition. It's interesting to note the Tigers lost to Georgia in the season opener and to Maryland 21-7 after their only bye week of the year.
It would be surprising if Clemson comes into this game anywhere near the offensive form it demonstrated while scoring 63 points against South Carolina. And there's little doubt Tennessee will offer some serious resistance. The Vols held one-third of their opponents without offensive touchdowns this season, including Miami.
Tennessee's defense, depth, superior kicking game and the savvy of senior signal caller Casey Clausen should be enough to carry the day. The key is keeping the turnover ratio even or better and limiting Charlie Whitehurst's big-play opportunities.
Prediction: Tennessee 27, Clemson 17.