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Clemson streaks into Gator Bowl clash with Kentucky

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Clemson is accustomed to playing on big stages, but falling short of double-digit victories for the first time since 2010 has ramifications.

The No. 22 Tigers weren’t in the College Football Playoff mix nor were they a candidate for one of the major bowls, yet they do get the opportunity to finish the season with a fifth consecutive victory when they battle Kentucky in the Gator Bowl on Friday in Jacksonville, Fla.

Clemson (8-4) was sitting at .500 before a 31-23 home win over Notre Dame became the first of four straight November triumphs to save a seemingly lost season.

“To be 4-4, everybody had a decision to make,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “Our team chose to believe that it was still half-full and kept a great attitude and just kept finding a way. …

“They’ve done a great job. They’ve won four in a row, they went from 4-4 to the Gator Bowl and this is a great opportunity to finish our season on a really positive note.”

The bowl game will be the 50th in program history — Clemson is 26-23 — and the 10th time that the Tigers have played in the Gator Bowl. Clemson is 4-5 in the Gator Bowl.

Kentucky (7-5) has taken the opposite path to northeast Florida. The Wildcats started 5-0 and then dropped five of six games before posting a solid victory over then-No. 10 Louisville.

That Nov. 25 win over their in-state rivals lifted the Wildcats into the Gator Bowl for the third time. They split the first two trips. Overall, Kentucky is 12-10 in bowl games.

“There’s been some ups and downs through this season,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “I like this football team. They’ve stayed with it all year. Things haven’t always been pretty … but I like the way they fought and hung tough.”

Wildcats star running back Ray Davis declared for the NFL draft and later indicated on social media that he will play in the Gator Bowl.

Davis has set a school record with 20 total touchdowns (13 rushing, seven receiving) and his 1,066 rushing yards rank 13th on the school’s single-season list.

“I’ve been really pleased with him making that decision to come (play) when he doesn’t really have to,” Kentucky offensive coordinator Liam Coen said. “It gives us another playmaker to get the ball in his hands and go win this football game.”

Wildcats quarterback Devin Leary will be playing against Clemson for the fourth time in his career. During his time at North Carolina State, he went 1-2 against the Tigers with losses in 2019 and 2022.

But in 2021, he passed for 238 yards and four touchdowns as the Wolfpack upset No. 9 Clemson 27-21 in double overtime.

“It’s kind of ironic to see them again,” Leary said. “They’re a great team. We know it’s going to be a good challenge.”

Leary will see some unfamiliar players as six key Clemson defenders have opted out of the game. First-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr. (team-high 88 tackles), first-team All-ACC cornerback Nate Wiggins and third-team All-ACC defensive tackle Ruke Orhorhoro are preparing for the NFL draft while safety Andrew Mukuba, cornerback Toriano Pride and defensive end David Ojiegbe entered the transfer portal.

The carnage could have been worse, but second-team All-ACC linebacker Barrett Carter and safety R.J. Mickens announced they were returning for the 2024 season.

“You have a tough decision to make, but you have to really weigh out the pros and cons,” Carter said. “So I felt like I had some unfinished business here.”

The Clemson offense lost a starter in wideout Beaux Collins, who entered the portal and transferred to Notre Dame.

This will be the 14th meeting between the schools. Kentucky leads the series 8-5 but Clemson won the most recent meeting, 21-13, in the 2009 Music City Bowl.

–Field Level Media

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