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December 31, 2008
Gator Bowl a bonus for Nebraska, Clemson
This is all icing on the cake for Nebraska. Clemson, too. Few could have imagined either program would be playing in a New Year's Day bowl.
The Huskers missed the postseason in two of the past three seasons, which led to the dismissal of coach Bill Callahan. Nebraska turned to Bo Pelini, hoping and praying he could restore the lost luster. No one expected a miracle in Year One, and to be playing on Jan. 1 is beyond belief to most Big Red fans.
"We wanted to make progress and we felt like we've made progress," Pelini said. "We are not as far as we wanted to go this year as far as the record is concerned, but it gives us an opportunity to get one more win. We are excited about how far we've come as a football team and I think this is a great reward for our team.
"The kids have worked hard, bought in to a new coaching staff and went through a lot of adversity along the way, all the way back from when we were hired and the coaching change happened until now."
Clemson's path to Jacksonville, Fla., has been even more circuitous. The Tigers entered 2008 as the preseason ACC favorite, but the Tigers spun out of control quickly, beginning with a 34-10 loss to Alabama in the opener. Clemson stumbled to a 3-3 start and coach Tommy Bowden "resigned." A season filled with so much promise was on the brink, but Clemson got new life after Dabo Swinney took over as interim coach. He guided the Tigers to a 4-2 finish, getting Clemson into the Gator Bowl and earning the full-time coaching gig.
"Nebraska has finished strong," Swinney said. "Both of us won our last three games and will be entering this game playing our best football of the season. Coach Pelini has done a terrific job and has an outstanding staff. They have been outstanding on offense all year, averaging over 36 points a game, so this will be a great challenge for our defense against a productive Big 12 offense."
Meeting Nebraska in the Gator Bowl has special significance for Clemson fans. The teams last met in the Orange Bowl after the 1981 season, with the Tigers topping the Huskers to win the national championship.
While the stakes aren't that high in this meeting, both coaches know this game is a chance to further establish a winning foundation in what will be the first bowl game involving coaches in their first seasons as Football Bowl Subdivision (i.e., Division I-A) coaches since the 2006 Motor City Bowl between Middle Tennessee's Rick Stockstill and Central Michigan's Jeff Quinn, who was serving as the interim coach after Brian Kelly left for Cincinnati.
Who has the edge?
Clemson run offense vs. Nebraska run defense
Clemson pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense
Nebraska run offense vs. Clemson run defense
Nebraska pass offense vs. Clemson pass defense
Clemson special teams vs. Nebraska special teams
Clemson coaches vs. Nebraska coaches
X-factor: Both teams have struggled to hang on to the ball. Clemson has committed 27 turnovers, while Nebraska has given it away 25 times. Whichever team hangs onto the ball best likely will have an edge in securing victory.
Nebraska will win if: The Huskers need to be able to run the ball. That means it will be vital for the Big Red to establish its passing game to loosen Clemson's defense, which will create room for the Huskers' backs.
Clemson will win if: Harper needs to stay as hot as he was during the Tigers' strong stretch run. He has a potent target in Aaron Kelly, who is the ACC's career receptions leader. If Clemson is slinging with success, Davis and Spiller will be difficult to stop.
Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.