Clemson hopes to continue late-season turnaround against Kentucky in the Gator Bowl
Published 3:33 pm Thursday, December 28, 2023
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Clemson was at a crossroads in late October, its season on the verge of unraveling following consecutive one-score losses to Miami and North Carolina State.
At 4-4 and long removed from the College Football Playoff picture and the Atlantic Coast Conference championship race, the Tigers had a decision to make.
“That could have gone one of two ways,” quarterback Cade Klubnik said. “We decided we’re not going to quit on these seniors, we’re not going to quit on the guys next to us. Just put our hands in the dirt, kept working and said, ‘Let’s go win the first one.’
“We won that one and the next one and the next one and the next one. Here we are at 8-4.”
And now the Tigers have a chance to end their worst season since 2010 with a five-game winning streak and a victory against Kentucky (7-5) in the Gator Bowl on Friday.
“It just shows that we have no quit,” running back Phil Mafah said. “When our backs are against the wall, we’re going to respond. We’re going to respond no matter what we face.”
The Tigers upset Notre Dame and knocked off Georgia Tech, North Carolina and rival South Carolina to salvage what had looked like it was going to be coach Dabo Swinney’s worst season in 15 years at Clemson.
“I’ve been through some much tougher seasons than being 8-4 and getting to go to the Gator Bowl. That is for dang sure,” Swinney said. “We certainly had some disappointment this year: double-overtime loss, overtime loss, four trips inside the 10 at Duke and couldn’t get a point. That’s a little football adversity, but that’s the story of this season.
“You learn a lot about people when things don’t go your way.”
Kentucky had little go right in October and November. The Wildcats lost five of six before upsetting rival and then-No. 9 Louisville in the Governor’s Cup.
That landed them in the Gator Bowl. It got better from there when star running back Ray Davis decided to play in the game despite announcing plans to turn pro.
“It says a lot about Ray. It says a lot about our team,” coach Mark Stoops said. “There are other guys that are in the same boat that maybe have NFL opportunities and are playing. It doesn’t surprise me. This is a really good group of guys, good team.”
Clemson receiver Antonio Williams, who led the team with 56 catches for 604 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman in 2022, will play for the first time since October. Williams missed the last five games and eight of the past nine because of ankle and toe injuries.
Since he only played in four games this season, NCAA rules allow him to play in the bowl game and still take a medical redshirt.
“It’s a blessing, to be honest,” Williams said. “I’ve taken just being on the field for granted, and I learned that this year. It’s just good to be back out here and play football.”
Williams’ return comes after junior Beaux Collins entered the transfer portal and switched to Notre Dame. Williams will pair with freshman All-American Tyler Brown to give the Tigers a glimpse of what their receiving corps will look like in 2024.
“I can’t wait until next year,” said Brown, who led Clemson with 51 catches for 519 yards and four scores this season.
Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary waited six years to finally play in a bowl game.
Leary spent the last five seasons at North Carolina State — he’s faced Clemson plenty — and even made two trips to the Gator Bowl. But he didn’t play in either, the first because he was redshirting and the second because he was injured. He missed out on two more bowl games, one because of an injury and another because it was canceled because of COVID-19 protocols. Now at Kentucky for his final season, he’ll get to experience a bowl for the first time.
“One last ride with everyone. Let’s make it a special one,” he said.
Both teams expect to have former players and current NFL starters on their sideline Friday.
Kentucky hosted Jaguars pass rusher Josh Allen and center Luke Fortner at Gator Bowl practice Tuesday and will welcome them at the game. Clemson will counter with three current Jaguars: quarterback Trevor Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne and offensive lineman Tyler Shatley.