2009 Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl Preview
Kentucky (7-5, 3-5; SEC) vs. Clemson (8-5, 6-2; ACC)
December 27th, 2009 @ 8:30 PM (EST) – ESPN – Nashville, Tennessee
The Music City Bowl has become a late-December staple in Nashville. Now in its 12th year, the game has tied into the SEC since its inception and currently matches the league up with the ACC. Typically one of the higher scoring bowl games every year (last year’s 16-14 Vanderbilt victory was the lowest scoring game in Music City Bowl history), there is usually an exciting affair in the home of country music.
Kentucky will be playing in its 4th Music City Bowl, a record total. The Wildcats are 2-1 in their previous three appearances and have defeated both ACC opponents they faced, including Clemson in 2006. The Wildcats are playing in the postseason on the strength of a 5-2 finish that included victories at Auburn and Georgia. Kentucky is led by Rich Brooks, who is completing his 25th year as a head coach, 7th at Kentucky. During his Wildcat tenure (Brooks coached Oregon for 18 years), Kentucky is only 39-45. However, the past four years have produced a 30-21 record that includes a 3-0 record in bowl games. Brooks is the first coach in school history to lead his team to four consecutive postseason berths.
Offensively, Kentucky is quite average, finishing 63rd nationally in scoring offense at 27.2 points per game. While they might not have scored a ton of points, the Wildcats did manage to churn up yards on the ground, finishing 21st in rushing! However, Kentucky suffered through a half season of terrible quarterbacking before Mike Hartline was injured, leading to freshman Morgan Newton’s ascension to the starting job. Thus, the passing game’s struggles were no surprise as they finished with the 6th lowest passing total in the country. The only major bright spot on offense was do-it-all sophomore Randall Cobb, who scored 14 touchdowns rushing and receiving.
The Wildcats were a bit better on the other side of the ball, allowing only 22.8 points per game to finish 44th in scoring defense. The highlight of their team was their 18th ranked pass defense, which managed to snag 16 interceptions. However, they were abysmal against the run, finishing 100th in the country! That’s not a good sign going against C.J. Spiller and it also shows that opponents didn’t need to pass as much because they ran the ball 150 times more than they passed. Thus, there are some serious concerns about the Wildcat run defense.
Clemson finally broke out in head coach Dabo Swinney’s first full season in charge. After failing in every way possible to reach the ACC Championship under Tommy Bowden, the Tigers won the Atlantic Division and earned a spot in the ACC Championship Game. While they fell short of the Orange Bowl in a shootout against Georgia Tech, Clemson finally began to capitalize on their high level of talent. Swinney took over at midseason in 2008 and has since led the Tigers to a 12-8 record, including a loss in last year’s Gator Bowl. He is considered one of the best young coaches in college football.
Clemson’s offense can be summed up thusly: C.J. Spiller is ridiculous. Spiller accounted for over 1,600 yards rushing and receiving, scored 15 touchdowns from scrimmage and returned four home runs on kickoffs, all while struggling with a terrible case of turf toe. Unsurprisingly, Spiller’s heroics pushed the Tigers up the offensive ladder and they finished 24th in scoring at 31.9 points per game. His kickoff prowess is underlined by the fact that the Tigers were only 44th in rushing and 86th in passing! While quarterback Kyle Parker improved as the season progressed, Spiller is the unquestioned key to the Tiger offense.
Defense was also a big factor in their run to the ACC Championship. They finished 27th in scoring defense at only 21 points per game, thanks largely to their opportunistic secondary. Clemson finished 11th in pass defense and picked off 21 passes, the 3rd best in America. It was a good thing that they defended the pass so well, because their run defense was lacking at 69th nationally. However, this is an opportunistic defense that is among the best in the country at forcing opponents into mistakes.
How excited are these two teams to be here? Clemson lost their final two games and fell just short of a BCS bowl berth while Kentucky lost out on a January trip to Florida in overtime against Tennessee on Senior Day. Deflating endings, to be sure. However, both teams are well-versed in dealing with adversity as both began the season with 2-3 records before rebounding to earn their spots in this game.
Kentucky definitely has the edge in bowl experience as they’ve emerged victorious after each of the past three seasons. Meanwhile, Clemson has lost their last three bowl games and you have to wonder if the trend will continue or whether the Tigers are ‘due’.
This game is going to come down to one player: Clemson’s C.J. Spiller. Let’s face it; this is a great matchup for him. Kentucky stinks defending the run and their kickoff coverage sits exactly in the middle of the national rankings. In his swan song, expect the talented Tiger senior to showcase his huge talent one last time. With three weeks off to heal his hurting foot, he could be as dangerous as ever. While there is no doubt that Kentucky’s Randall Cobb will try to match Spiller throughout the game, Clemson is the more talented team and has the only truly dominant player in the entire contest. Expect the teams to trade big plays on the ground but the decisive blow will be Spiller’s 5th kickoff return for a touchdown in an exciting Clemson victory.
Music City Bowl Pick: Clemson 31, Kentucky 24
by Matt Baxendell
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