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Front Page - Friday, December 9, 2022

Vols take big step forward, rewarded with Orange Bowl

Sophomore Jaylen Wright (786 yards, 10 TDs) will get a chance to pad his stats vs. Clemson. - Photo by Jerry Denham |The Ledger

There will be a lot of orange at the Orange Bowl this season.

In a color scheme showdown that fits the designation, Tennessee (10-2) will play Clemson (11-2) Dec. 30 at 8 p.m. EST (ESPN) at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami.

Tennessee is making its first-ever New Year’s Six appearance in the College Football Playoff era and fifth Orange Bowl appearance all-time.

The Vols finished No. 6 in the final CFP rankings behind Alabama (10-2), which Tennessee beat 52-49 at Neyland Stadium in October. Georgia, Michigan, TCU and Ohio State were the top four teams selected to participate in the national semifinals.

Although none of his players have experience playing in a major bowl game, Tennessee coach Josh Heupel is very familiar with the experience.

He was Oklahoma’s quarterback when the Sooners beat Florida State in the Orange Bowl in the 2000 BCS national championship game.

“I know, having played in it and coached in it two previous times, this bowl game is as good as it gets,’’ Heupel says. “It’s a very unique and special opportunity for our football program and one that we couldn’t be more excited to partake in.”

Swinney: ‘Playoff-caliber game’

The Vols are still kicking themselves for how close they came to making the CFP national semifinals. Given the way things fell over the last two weeks, Tennessee had a great case for inclusion in the top four if not for the 63-38 loss to South Carolina.

The Gamecocks also prevented No. 7 Clemson from being in the conversation for the final playoff spot after beating the rival Tigers 31-30 to end the regular season.

Clemson recovered to win the ACC Championship with a 39-10 victory over North Carolina after inserting quarterback Cade Klubnik into the game to provide a spark to the offense.

The Tigers and Vols are playing for the 19th time, but for only the second time in the last 45 years. The Tigers won the last meeting in 2003 in the Peach Bowl.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says Tennessee “may be the best team in the country this year” and says both teams could have been slotted in the final four.

“Both teams had an amazing season,” Swinney says. “This will be an exciting opportunity to finish our year again with a Playoff-caliber game. … It’s Miami. It’s the Orange Bowl. You’re playing Tennessee. I think any time you get a chance if you’re a fan of your team, any time you get a chance to see them play, it ought to be exciting.”

Hooker earns SEC honors

Tennessee will face Clemson without quarterback Hendon Hooker, who suffered a torn ACL in the loss to South Carolina. A Heisman candidate before the injury, Hooker missed out on making the cut as one of the four finalists announced Monday night. Four other quarterbacks are heading to New York for the ceremony: Georgia’s Stetson Bennett, TCU’s Max Duggan, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and USC’s Caleb Williams.

Hooker was named the SEC Offensive Player of the Year by The Associated Press Monday while Heupel earned SEC Coach of the Year honors.

Hooker’s replacement behind center for the bowl is expected to be Joe Milton III, a Florida native.

“Joe is certainly going to be excited about having an opportunity to go play in an area that he certainly is familiar with,” Heupel says. “But so many friends and family, coaches and mentors that have been a part of his life will have an opportunity to come see him play in the football game.”

Golesh takes USF reins

The Vols will be missing a significant member of the coaching staff as they prepare for Clemson.

UT offensive coordinator Alex Golesh was named the head coach at the University of South Florida and will not be coaching Tennessee in the bowl game.

Golesh, a finalist for this year’s Broyles Award honoring the country’s top assistant, led a prolific Tennessee attack that ranked first in FBS in total offense (6,457 yards) and first in scoring offense (47.3 points per game).

Golesh, 38, just completed his second season at UT. Before arriving in Knoxville, he was on Heupel’s staff at UCF as the offensive coordinator. USF will be Golesh’s first head coaching job. The Bulls went 1-11 this season, resulting in the firing of former coach Jeff Scott.

“Losing Alex is something that we’re excited about,’’ Heupel says. “I think it speaks to the growth inside of our program.’’

Orange Bowl pays off

Along with the prestige, exposure and larger conference payout, a New Year’s Six bowl appearance is financially lucrative for the UT coaching staff.

Heupel will receive a $200,000 bonus for leading the Vols to a New Year’s Six game, his contract stipulates. Heupel has the chance to earn another $100,000 if UT finishes in the top 10 of the final polls. If the Vols finish in the top five, that increases to $150,000.

The UT assistant coaches will have their bowl bonus increased to 12% for making a New Year’s Six bowl compared to 8.33% for a regular bowl.

It’s always a guess who will participate in bowl games in this era of college football. Some may opt-out to focus on the NFL Draft or not risk injury and others may enter the transfer portal.

“I certainly expect most of our guys to be there,” Heupel says. “There’s guys that are still gaining information, guys that were nicked up on the back half of the season, that got to see where they get to here over the coming days and make a smart, educated decision for them and their future.”

Heupel can always share his own bowl experience with the current Vols to help influence their decision. The memories he made still resonate, and he expects to have some of his former OU teammates at the game.

In a season few anticipated having as much success as the Vols did, a New Year’s Six bowl could be considered a crowning accomplishment.

“This is a special football game. This is important to our program. It’s important to our players inside of the locker room,” Heupel says. “Certainly I believe we’ll have a majority if not a full roster when we get down there for it.”