When Tennessee football and the Clemson Tigers kick off in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30, it’ll be the second time Josh Heupel and Dabo Swinney have faced off. Clemson beat the Oklahoma Sooners 40-6 in the Russell Athletic Bowl in 2014.
Heupel was OU’s offensive coordinator at the time. Bob Stoops fired him a week after that game. Clemson, meanwhile, began a run the next year of six straight ACC Championships, six straight playoff appearances and two national championships.
Simply put, the coaches went in very different directions. Somehow, though, Heupel finds himself a peer of Swinney’s in this Orange Bowl given the turnaround he orchestrated with Tennessee football.
“What this program has done, the steps that it’s taken in less than 24 months since I took the job, what these kids are made of, they get one more opportunity to go do it together against a great opponent,” Heupel said in the Orange Bowl Kickoff joint press conference with Swinney. “It’s a culmination of all the work that’s put in, it’s a culmination of this season, and it is a great opportunity for your young kids to be exposed to one of the biggest and best games in college football.”
In that first matchup between them, Heupel and OU were ending a disappointing campaign. They had gone 11-2 and beaten the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl the year before. Heupel was seen as an OC on the rise.
However, Stoops forced Heupel to run an offense that wasn’t fit for Trevor Knight, OU’s defense became a disaster under his brother, and they stumbled to an 8-5 campaign. Stoops made Heupel the scapegoat.
On the other side, Swinney was actually in a down year, as his team finished 10-3. It was a transition year of sorts from the Tajh Boyd era to the DeShaun Watson era, and it was the one year from 2011 to 2020 that they didn’t finish in the top 10 or win the ACC.
“Coach Swinney and his program have done a great job for a long time and certainly looking forward to that contest,” he said. “I have a great appreciation for everything that they have done.”
After Stoops fired him, Heupel then had to climb the ladder again. He became offensive coordinator of the Utah State Aggies for a year and then of the Missouri Tigers for two years, taking over downtrodden programs.
The move worked out, though, as he then landed his first head coaching job with the UCF Knights, where he was for three years. Then Tennessee football hired him.
Now, he’s got the Vols going to their first Orange Bowl in 25 years after their first 10-win regular season in 19 years in just his second season on the job. A win will secure their first top 10 finish in 21 years.
“What Josh (Heupel) has done at Tennessee is incredible,” Swinney said. “I grew up watching Tennessee. He’s made Tennessee Tennessee again.”
Basically, the Vols on a macro scale had been in a long-term position similar to Heupel in 2015 when he took over Rocky Top. They were trying to climb back up the ladder, just as Heupel was in 2015.
In both cases, the rise was much more rapid than anybody could have anticipated. Heupel became a head coach three years after his firing and turned the Vols into a top five program less than two years after taking over.
“It’s a unique group of young men that have changed the trajectory of Tennessee football here and really proud of what they’ve accomplished this season,” he said.
Now, as they get set to face off, Heupel and Swinney will do so with much more on the line. This game may not have national championship implications, but it will have recruiting implications.
Swinney helped to build up Clemson by stealing recruits from Tennessee football as the Vols were struggling. UT could change that trajectory with a win in the Orange Bowl, and Swinney knows it.
Because of that, despite no national championship, there is a lot on the line in this game. Heupel could be the one reaching a new stratosphere after this game the way Swinney did after 2014.
“To me this is a playoff game, and in a couple of years it will be a playoff game,” Swinney said. “Both of these teams have been in the mix for the playoff all year, and both have had great years.”