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Clemson, Tennessee know Orange Bowl can be springboard

Volunteers, in search of first 11-win season since 2001, hope to replicate recent success Tigers have found
Tennessee Volunteers head coach Josh Heupel and Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney at coaches luncheon ahead of Orange Bowl, Dec. 29, 2022
Posted at 7:22 AM, Dec 30, 2022

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — 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."

Cheerleaders greet Tennessee Volunteers head coach Josh Heupel at Orange Bowl coaches luncheon, Dec. 29, 2022
Team cheerleaders wave their pom-poms as Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel arrives at a coaches luncheon ahead of the Orange Bowl, Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022, in Miami.

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."

Cheerleaders greet Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney at Orange Bowl coaches luncheon, Dec. 29, 2022
Cheerleaders wave their pom-poms as Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney arrives at a coaches luncheon ahead of the Orange Bowl, Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022, in Miami.

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. 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.