It’s not College Football Playoff game, but Tennessee football and the Clemson Tigers may be facing off in the biggest New Years Six Bowl matchup in history. This is a game that could dramatically alter the trajectory of both programs.
Let’s rewind a bit first. The Vols fired Phillip Fulmer in 2008. Clemson fired Tommy Bowden the same year. When new UT hire Lane Kiffin pushed off numerous Fulmer commitments, new Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney took the most high-profile one, Tajh Boyd.
With Sammy Watkins to throw to in 2011 and a weakened ACC, Swinney had exactly what he needed to take Clemson to the next level. He did just that, and in doing so, he was able to cash in on Tennessee football struggling, pulling in recruits that they normally got.
Swinney took it to another level claiming Clemson was Wide Receiver U, and by the mid-2010s, he was raiding the state of Tennessee for recruits. Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers were plucked from right out of the state, and then he pulled in lifetime Vol fan Trevor Lawrence.
This recruiting heist resulted in two national championships, six straight ACC Championships and six straight playoff appearances. It all came at the Vols’ expense. Then Josh Heupel came along. The past two years, Heupel has helped UT emerge once again.
Now, with a 10-2 record their second year under Heupel and with NIL money allowing them to start fighting back on the recruiting trail, the Vols are facing Clemson in a bowl game. This is their chance to drive a nail through the heart of Swinney and make it clear that they, not Clemson, are the program of the future.
There’s no denying the fact that Tennessee football and Clemson can’t succeed at the same time. That’s even more true with the South Carolina Gamecocks emerging now under Shane Beamer. Despite the states not bordering each other, UT competes with South Carolina schools for the same recruits.
In 1998, all four of the Vols’ starting defensive linemen came from South Carolina. Swinney, as we have already mentioned, turned Clemson into Wide Receiver U, taking the title away from the Vols, by pulling in players from Tennessee.
A bowl game like this is a chance to change that. If you don’t think it matters, look at Clemson in the Orange Bowl to end the 2013 season. They beat Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeyes. The following summer, they picked up three five-stars and then had their first top five recruiting class in 2015, which set up their run.
Don’t think the same situation could apply here for Tennessee football. This is the biggest bowl game for the Vols since that 1998 national championship game, and they need to win it. If they do, they can reverse a trend that has been killing them the past decade.