The Gator Bowl: A Clemson Fan's Take
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With the way things have played out, the Clemson Tigers will have opened the 2008 season and closed the 2008 season out of conference against two of the most storied programs in college football history. The Alabama Crimson Tide put a hurtin' on the Tigers in week 1. But with a win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Clemson will still have a memorable 2008 season.
Dabo Swinney took over as interim Head Coach for Tommy Bowden in week 7. Since then, he has guided the Tigers to a 4-2 mark, capped off with a home victory in the rain over in-state rival South Carolina, 31-14. The win earned him a ride off of the field, and most-probably the final bit of assurance AD Terry Don Phillips needed to hire him. Now, he has the Tigers (7-5, 4-4 ACC) thinking they can beat anybody.
In playing Nebraska (8-4, 5-3 Big 12), Clemson will face a team that is itself playing off of the energy of a young, enthusiastic coach. Bo Pelini has changed the attitude in Lincoln, just as Swinney has done in Clemson. When these two teams take the field at 1:00 eastern New Year's Day, there will be no shortage of hunger for a win from either side. This will be a passionate ball game no matter the outcome. Both teams have tradition, one a bit more steeped than the other, and both teams have top-notch athletes.
Nationally, the Huskers come in ranked 65th in total defense and 84th in scoring defense. Clemson comes in ranked 15th in total defense and 9th in scoring defense. And while these numbers look to go strongly in Clemson's favor, when we switch to offense, ironically, Clemson has had a poor season, at least numerically.
Offensively, the Tigers have the 95th best rushing attack in the country while Cullen Harper rates 51st in passing efficiency. Nebraska is 36th in rushing offense, while qb Joe Ganz is coming in at 14th in passing. In total offense, UN is 12th and Clemson is 81st.
As far as turnover margin goes, CU is 72nd while Nebraska is 105th. This stat isn't strong for either team, but obviously the avoidance of a critical turnover is key in a game that will be this close.
All of these numbers are fun, but what it will come down to in a game like this is who gets the breaks and which big players make the big plays. It sounds so cliche, but it is what is is. These two teams are very, very even in my opinion and the game could go either way. Both teams have young coaches wanting to make an impact. Both teams have solid athletes and playmakers. Both teams want so bad to move into the national picture and be a factor in the big scene of college football. This game will be a back and forth war, and is very tough to call.
So what it comes down to, at least to me as a Clemson fan, is what it has come down to in many of the last 3 seasons: Tiger running-backs James Davis and CJ Spiller busting through the line and picking up 5 plus yards multiple, multiple times. Cullen Harper must protect the ball and make timely, accurate throws, but I feel it is the play of these two players that will determine this one. There have been times they appeared to have not gotten off of the bus, and there have been times where they left people in amazement. I have to believe that in what is definetly the last game for one of them, and perhaps the last game for the other, as well, they will not go out with a fizzle. The offensive line must block, and Cullen Harper cannot throw interceptions to defensive linemen, but you can bet the house that JD and CJ will have the team ready to play.
So I have to pick my Tigers to win this one. I think the defense will play with a sense of pissed-offed-ness as they have been given litle props in the media compared to Nebraska's unit, despite the statistics above. And I think the offense is much improved since Swinney and OC Billy Napier have taken over calling the plays. The game will be a stressfest, no doubt about it. But as the game gets late, CU will get some big scores from some big players, including one I haven't mentioned yet: WR Aaron Kelly, who graduated last week. Do not be surprised if Kelly, one of the ACC's all-time top recievers, makes several huge catches down the stretch to seal his fate as an all-time Clemson great.
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