After losing 27-14 to the Clemson Tigers in Casey Clausen’s final game in the Peach Bowl to end the 2003 season, Tennessee football was widely considered a program on the decline. Clemson hired Dabo Swinney as an assistant that year, so they laid the seeds to be a program on the rise.
Now, nearly 20 years later, the script has flipped. The Vols’ 31-14 Orange Bowl win over Clemson Friday wasn’t just a meaningless consolation game. It represented another changing of the gaurd.
Under Josh Heupel, Tennessee football is a program on the rise. NIL money, an exciting offense and an SEC East in flux outside of the Georgia Bulldogs are all helping the Vols emerge.
Meanwhile, Clemson, which made the College Football Playoff every year from 2015 to 2020 while winning two national championships, has now missed it two years in a row. They lost to the South Carolina Gamecocks this year for the first time since 2013.
Okay, so the Vols lost to South Carolina the week before. That was on the road, and there were major internal issues facing the program. Clemson’s loss signified the program taking a step backward.
That Peach Bowl loss nearly 20 years ago cost the Vols a top 10 finish. It also cost them an 11-win season. These are two things they haven’t had since…until this year thanks to that win over Clemson.
Despite winning the SEC East playing three different quarterbacks in 2004 and winning it again in 2007, it was clear the Vols were indeed on the decline after that bowl. They had their first losing season in 17 years in 2005 and had another in 2008.
The more UT declined, the more Clemson emerged. After firing Bowden in 2008 and going with Swinney, the program cashed in on UT failures. It started with Lane Kiffin pushing off Tajh Boyd.
Then there were years of futility on Rocky Top that pushed stars like Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers and Trevor Lawrence to Clemson. Playing in the ACC helped, but Swinney started securing top five classes while the Vols sputtered was huge.
Given how Swinney has built Clemson, it’s clear the college football world isn’t big enough for both to be powerhouses. The Vols need to recruit the state of South Carolina, and Clemson needs to recruit Tennessee.
Higgins and Rodgers are both from East Tennessee. Lawrence was born in Knoxville and grew up a Vol fan. On the other side, all four defensive line starters on the Vols’ 1998 national championship team were from South Carolina.
Simply put, the programs will always be jockeying for the same positions, and unlike the Alabama Crimson Tide, LSU Tigers and Georgia Bulldogs, they can’t coexist. That’s what made Friday night’s game so big.
It may not happen next year, and it may not happen in the next five years. However, what you saw Friday was the start of Tennessee football moving back above Clemson. That’s going to continue.