MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — An Orange Bowl trip helped usher in Clemson’s current run of success. Maybe it’ll be the start of something special at Tennessee, too.
The sixth-ranked Volunteers (10-2) take on No. 10 Clemson (11-2) in the Orange Bowl on Friday night. For Tennessee, it’s a chance at what would be the school’s first 11-win season since 2001 — and, just as Clemson’s first Orange Bowl trip in a generation did 11 years ago, it may help set the tone for a return to college football’s mountaintop.
“It’s another opportunity for kids across the entire country to see the brand of football that you’re playing, the culture that you have by the way that you compete together,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. “Throughout the course of this season, we’ve been able to show the proof of what this program is becoming and what’s going on inside of our building and continuing to take steps forward to continuing to compete for championships. When we first arrived, you were talking about it. A year ago they saw a little bit of proof of it. They get a chance to see a whole lot more of who we are and what we’re about.”
Funny. That’s pretty much the same approach that Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was taking when the Tigers came to the Orange Bowl to cap the 2011 season.
The game was a rout; West Virginia simply embarrassed Clemson that night 70-33. But that season was a launching pad for the Tigers, who still won 10 games that season — what was then their best win total in about two decades. The parallel for the Volunteers is obvious; they’ve reached 10 wins this year for the first time since 2007.
“That was my message to the team to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to get better, we’ll learn from this, we’ll grow from this, we’ll own it,’” Swinney said. “I wish we could have played the next week. But just a part of our journey. That’s it. Just a part of our journey. Just every year is a new journey, it’s a new opportunity, you learn and grow. ... It was just a bad day in the midst of a great journey of Clemson football. That’s how I look at it.”
Since that Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia, only Alabama has won more than the Tigers. Clemson is 132-19 over the last 11 seasons; Alabama is 138-15. Clemson also has major college football's second-best home winning percentage in that span (again, behind only Alabama) and fourth-best road record (behind Ohio State, Alabama and Oklahoma).
Before this year, Tennessee's last 10-win regular season was 2003. That was also the most recent season in which the Volunteers played a game in Miami; they beat the Hurricanes 10-6 at the former Orange Bowl stadium. The Vols ended the regular season ranked No. 6 in the AP poll that year; they're ranked No. 6 in the AP poll now as well. And their bowl game that year was also against Clemson.
That's where the Volunteers probably hope the coincidences end. The then-unranked Tigers upset Tennessee 27-14 in the Peach Bowl that season.
Heupel — who won a national championship with Oklahoma as a player in the Orange Bowl — paid tribute Thursday to Mike Leach, the innovative and entertaining Mississippi State coach who died earlier this month.
Leach was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for that Oklahoma team.
“Mike was instrumental in my opportunity to play at a high level, to coach at a high level," Heupel said. “He’s the guy that gave me my start. He meant so much to so many people around the country inside of college football and outside of it. I think he’s really unique in that way that you truly got a chance to see how his mind worked and operated. He had so many passions outside of the game, as well.
“We lost somebody that made college football extremely interesting and changed the landscape of it. At that time, college football was played in a box around a lot of the country, and his vision of playing out in space is how college football is played today."
And that certainly applies to how Tennessee plays. The Volunteers lead the country in points per game (47.3), yards per game (538.3) and passing efficiency this season.
Swinney has developed a friendship with Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra over the years. Spoelstra is known for meeting with coaches outside of basketball to discuss ideas, and Swinney said it was a thrill when the two-time NBA champion visited Clemson a few years ago.
Swinney was at Miami's win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night.
“Listen, it doesn’t really matter what the sport is. If you’re in leadership and you’re dealing with people, there’s so much you can learn, especially when you’re in a competitive environment," Swinney said.
It's also not uncommon for Swinney to exchange ideas with football coaches — even rival ones. After Clemson beat Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinals in 2019, the staffs from the two schools wound up getting together at an American Football Coaches Association convention not long afterward.
“We kind of got together and talked through the game. It was crazy," Swinney said. “That’s one of the cool things about our profession is we compete, but we collaborate and always have. It’s not the case in most industries, right. Coke doesn’t sit down with Pepsi at the end of the year and say, ‘Hey, boys, what did you think? Let’s see how this goes.' But football coaches do that."
Despite being separated by just over 100 miles, this is only the second meeting between Tennessee and Clemson since 1976.
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