Clemson's offense sputters yet again in 31-14 Orange Bowl loss to Tennessee

Clemson’s long-awaited quarterback change did not make much of a difference in the Orange Bowl.

With DJ Uiagalelei off to Oregon State and prized freshman Cade Klubnik making his first career start, the Tigers moved the ball relatively well but failed time after time once they reached Tennessee territory.

Clemson advanced to Tennessee’s side of the 50 on nine of its first 10 drives, but came away with only six points in that span. There was a botched fake field goal, three missed field goals, a red-zone clock mismanagement at the end of the half and a turnover on downs.

It was ugly all around for Klubnik and the Tigers and that lengthy list of miscues proved costly as Tennessee put together a 31-14 victory, the program’s biggest bowl victory since it won the BCS national championship game in 1998.

Tennessee players Jaylen McCollough (left) and Roman Harrison (30) tackle Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik in the Orange Bowl on December 30, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)
Tennessee's Jaylen McCollough (left) and Roman Harrison tackle Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik in the Orange Bowl on Friday. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

As Clemson continually sputtered, Tennessee put the ball into the end zone behind the arm of Joe Milton. Milton backed up Hendon Hooker for the past two seasons but made his second start following Hooker’s season-ending knee injury.

Milton has a huge arm but has struggled with accuracy throughout his career. In this one, Milton was the best quarterback on the field. He delivered a slew of gorgeous deep balls while also fitting throws into tight windows with velocity for third-down conversions. His touchdown pass to Bru McCoy opened the scoring late in the first quarter.

And in the second half, Milton added two more touchdown passes. One came in the final seconds of the third quarter to extend Tennessee’s lead to 21-6. And after Clemson finally punched in a touchdown to make it 21-14 with 10:01 to play, Milton responded by finding Ramel Keyton behind the defense for a 46-yard touchdown to go back ahead 28-14.

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The Milton-to-Keyton connection was an emphatic answer from Tennessee when it seemed like Clemson had a glimmer of hope. The touchdown came just 1:27 after Clemson got the score to 21-14 via a Klubnik touchdown run. It took the wind out of Clemson’s sails and proved to be the dagger that capped off a tremendous season for Tennessee.

Tennessee's best season in 20 years

Tennessee hadn’t won a major bowl game since it won the national championship in 1998. And with the Orange Bowl win, Tennessee reached the 11-win mark for the first time since 2001.

It has been a remarkable turnaround for a program mired in scandal only a few years ago. Head coach Josh Heupel came in from UCF, installed a quick-strike offense and watched the victories pile up.

Tennessee is 18-8 in Heupel's two seasons and has won 13 of its past 16 games. UT climbed as high as No. 1 during the regular season and was in the College Football Playoff picture well into November.

Though Hooker and several other top players will move on to the NFL, there's still a bevy of talent returning in 2023. That includes Milton, who will compete for the starting job with five-star freshman Nico Iamaleava, who is already on campus as an early enrollee.

It's hard not to be bullish about the future of Tennessee's program, especially with the playoff expanding in a few years. Being in the same division as Georgia is a massive challenge, but there will be much more access to a national championship once the playoff field expands to 12 in 2024.

What's next for Clemson?

On the Clemson side, it was a disappointing finish to another up-and-down season. The Tigers struggled mightily on offense in 2021 and saw their six-year ACC championship streak snapped. Despite continued underwhelming performances on offense, Clemson (11-3) got back to the top of the ACC this season, but it’s hard not to wonder about the program's overall trajectory.

Before the past two seasons, Clemson hadn’t had back-to-back seasons with three or more losses since 2010 and 2011.

Klubnik is just a true freshman and his talent level was very apparent in Friday night’s game. But the Clemson coaches also put a heck of a lot on his shoulders — and did so on a big stage of a New Year's Six bowl game. Klubnik ended up with 54 pass attempts and 20 rushing attempts. He had his moments, but the offense as a whole looked disjointed.

Head coach Dabo Swinney appears to have a promising young quarterback in his program, but it's fair to wonder if his entire offensive approach is in need of a fresh set of eyes.