Roy Martin: Peach Bowl Preview
Tennessee ranks 15th in the country in pass defense, only giving up 181.08 yards per game.
Clemson may now face its toughest task since the Georgia game. It is not so much that the Tigers are completely outgunned and face insurmountable odds. Rather, they must now live up to the expectations thrust upon them by many fans and members of the media.
The Florida State game was a tough task but the matter in which they approached it was made easier by the fact no one expected them to win. The same is not true with this game. There has been a wide range of predictions, some of which have the Tigers winning.
Those predicting a victory have their reasons. Some are based on in-depth analysis while others are based upon pure emotion. It is easy to see how emotions can take precedence after the three dominating performances Clemson turned in to end the season.
What some seem to be forgetting is the Tennessee is a very good football team.
The Volunteers are ranked no.6 in the country for a reason. Victories at Florida and Miami are big factors. The seventh 10+ win season in Phillip Fulmer’s 11th season as full-time head coach is another.
Under Fulmer’s guidance Tennessee has been one of the top programs in the country. They have played in 10 January bowl games. They have won 35 of 56 games against ranked opponents. His 113-27 record equates to a .807 winning percentage. And, possibly most importantly, he has placed 68 players in the NFL draft (12 in the first round), which leads the nation during that time span.
It is a talent and tradition rich program much like Florida State’s but nothing like Duke’s or South Carolina’s. Clemson would very much like to emulate the success Tennessee has had. This game could go a long way towards determining just how far they have come and/or have to go.
There is no question that Clemson lives and dies by the success of its passing game. When Charlie Whitehurst is successful Clemson is successful. The running game has been productive at times but it has yet to establish itself as a force.
The Tigers’ dependence upon the pass could play into the hands of the Volunteers. They rank 15th in the country in pass defense by only giving up 181.08 yards per game. They have not given up a 300-yard passing performance all year. Clemson fans know that the 300-yard mark has been an important one for the Tigers as they have racked up six such performances during the season. They have come within at least six yards of that mark three other times.
Cornerback Jabari Greer has 33 career starts and has played in 50 games. Free safety Rashad Baker has 40 starts in 44 games. Cornerback Jason Allen and strong safety Gibril Wilson are not as experienced as they have only played in 25 games while starting 7 and 19, respectively. Their experience and size are big reasons why their pass defense is so good.
The front four have all played in at least 23 games. Senior Constantin Ritzmann, who has played in 45 games, leads the group. The others are sophomores Greg Jones, J.T. Mapu, and Parys Haralson. Mapu’s 6’3”, 265 lb. size is small for a defensive tackle but he has outstanding quickness, strength, and technique.
The linebackers are also an experienced bunch. Sophomore Kevin Simon has only played in 16 games as a result of a broken ankle suffered last year. He is extremely quick and packs a punch when attacking blockers and ball carriers. His athleticism and instincts have allowed him to develop into a very good linebacker.
Robert Pearce and Kevin Burnett have played in 43 and 36 games. Pearce is somewhat of a throwback. While not extremely gifted athletically, his hard-nosed play enables him to be very good against the run. Meanwhile, Pearce’s leadership presence has been invaluable. He is the first Volunteer since 1944 (along with Michael Munoz) to be elected captain.
Tennessee takes advantage of their exceptional secondary by bringing a number of different blitzes throughout the course of a game. The result has been 27 sacks during their 12 games. Clemson will have to find a way to neutralize that attacking nature if they are to have a shot to win.
The best way for them to do this is to utilize Duane Coleman as a receiver and Derrick Hamilton as a runner. Coleman proved throughout the season that he is very capable of catching passes out of the backfield. One way to do that is to run some of the screens the Clemson staff employed towards the end of the season. Hamilton has always been a threat on reverses and end-arounds. This game should be no different.
Tennessee has the 17th best scoring defense in the country as they only give up 17.67 points per game. Over the last six games they have given up an average of 156.8 passing yards and 8 points. If the bowl games played so far are any indication of how the game will be played, Clemson will need a ton of points and, thus, will have to blow those numbers out of the water.
There is nothing extremely sexy about the Tennessee offense. They mainly rely on a solid running game and play action passes. They have run the ball nearly 55% of the time in route to compiling 437 rushes and 366 passes. Amazingly, they averaged only 29:43 minute of possession over the course of the season.
The offensive line is undoubtedly the strength of the unit. They average nearly 6’5” and 304 lbs. Junior left tackle Michael Munoz is a team captain but it is hard to say he is the lone leader in the group. They are all very experienced and talented.
Munoz has started all 36 games in which he has played. Those are great numbers given that he is a junior but he is not the most experienced lineman. Center Scott Wells has started 48 of his 49 contests and left guard Anthony Herrera 35 of his 47.
Senior right guard Chavis Smith is in his first full season as a starter but has played in 44 games. The biggest lineman for either team is right tackle Sean Young. The former Clemson commitment checks in at 6’7”, 310 lbs. and has started 19 of his 34 games.
Senior quarterback Casey Clausen is the definition of a winner. He is 34-9 during his career and an amazing 14-1 on the road. His 9323 career passing yards and 73 touchdowns rank him sixth and eighth in SEC history.
He has thrown for 2584 yards and 25 touchdowns this season while only being picked off 9 times. At one point during the season he threw 143 consecutive passes without an interception, which is a Tennessee record.
Tailback is the deepest position for the Volunteers. Cedric Houston and Jabari Davis lead a quartet that has combined for 1590 yards. Houston is the starter but Davis sees plenty of action, much of which comes as a short yardage and goal line specialist.
Fullback Corey Fleming is somewhat of an unsung hero. He only has 13 carries on the season but contributes a lot as both a blocker and receiver. He is the team’s third leading receiver with 30 catches, 23 of which came in the last 8 games.
Receivers James Banks and Mark Jones have had very solid seasons despite not racking up huge numbers. Banks leads the team in catches and receiving yards but Jones is the most exciting player and the guy to watch.
He sees significant playing time on offense, defense, and special teams. Against Kentucky he was on the field for a total of 92 plays: 43 on offense, 33 on defense, and 16 on special teams. He set a Tennessee record earlier this year with a spectacular 90-yard touchdown reception versus Georgia.
What makes this offense so effective is their ability to convert in the red zone. They have scored on 39 of 44 trips inside the 20-yard line. Thirty-one of the 39 scores have been touchdowns. The five failures have resulted in three missed field goals, one fumble, and the end of the half.
Clemson needs to shut down the Tennessee running game in hopes of making them one-dimensional. Clausen is not very mobile and struggles when he is pressured. Forcing him to win the game will give the Tigers their best shot of winning.
The front seven will be challenged. How well they respond to that challenge will determine how much success the defense has. Donnell Washington needs to have a big game. He does not have to have a large number of tackles but he does need to disrupt their blocking schemes and get consistent pressure on Clausen.
You look at Tennessee’s total offense ranking of 73rd best in the country and you may wonder how they score nearly 30 points a game. They do it by winning the field position battle with special teams.
Punter Dustin Colquitt is 4th in the nation with a 45.92 yard average. Anyone who watched their game against South Carolina realized he was the player of the game as he single handedly pinned the Gamecocks deep in their own territory on a number of occasions as he averaged 51 yards per punt.
Freshman place kicker James Wilhoit was named to The Sporting News Freshman All-American second team as he made 12 of his last 13 attempts. He connected on 7 of his 10 attempts from 40+ yards.
Mark Jones paces the return game as the third leading punt returner in the nation with a 15.68 yard average. He has returned one punt for a touchdown.
It will be a matchup of two very contrasting offenses. The Tigers will need to throw the ball successfully and the Volunteers will need to run the ball well.
Clemson has a lot to gain and Tennessee has a lot to lose. Unfortunately for the Tigers, the Volunteers come in with a chip on their shoulders. They felt slighted when the Outback Bowl passed them up in favor of Florida. To add to that, Maryland embarrassed them in last year’s Peach Bowl and they are looking for shot to prove that was a fluke.
Clemson has a shot to knock off their second top 6 opponent of the season and continue to add to the momentum gained during the last three games. A win would work wonders for recruiting and put an even more positive outlook on the 2004 season.
More importantly, it gives the Tigers an opportunity to erase the misery caused by last year’s blowout in the Tangerine Bowl.
Many prognosticators have picked this game to be one of the better contests of the bowl season. It will be hard to compete with some of the nail biters that have already taken place but it does have a lot of promise.
Clemson has increased its talent level over the last five years and it slowly working towards Tennessee’s level in that category. Still, they do not have the talent, depth, and experience demonstrated by their bowl opponent.
A couple of big plays could be the difference in what should be a very good game. In the end, however, Tennessee will show why they are revered as one of the top program in the country. The Tigers will have a good showing but lose a close one 31-27.