Clemson University

Clemson football team draws Nebraska in Gator Bowl

Clemson wide receiver Tyler Grisham, top, celebrates in the end zone with teammate Bobby Hutchinson after Grisham scored a touchdown Saturday in Charlottesville, Va.
Clemson wide receiver Tyler Grisham, top, celebrates in the end zone with teammate Bobby Hutchinson after Grisham scored a touchdown Saturday in Charlottesville, Va.

CLEMSON -- A smirk crossed a Gator Bowl representative's face last week when Clemson coach Dabo Swinney prematurely referred to Nebraska as its bowl opponent.

"Oops, hope I didn't mess that up," Swinney said.

A bowl press conference rookie gaffe, to be sure -- but Swinney hardly disclosed sensitive or secret info.

On Sunday, the Gator Bowl formally, if not finally, announced the Cornhuskers as Clemson's opponent for the New Year's Day game in Jacksonville, Fla.

The Big 12 waited until after Saturday's league championship game to release Texas Tech to its bowl tie-ins, setting in motion a series of expected selections.

None perhaps have the traditional context of this one, a rematch of the 1982 Orange Bowl that Clemson won 22-15 to subsequently be named national champion.

While the Cornhuskers' history is steeped in postseason trips to Florida for bowls with national implications, it is strangely their first appearance in the Gator Bowl as well as their first game in the state since 1998.

"We're not playing Miami on its home field, which we're happy about," said athletic director Tom Osborne, the program's legendary former coach.

The one thing Osborne said stood out from his only clash with Clemson was how loud Tigers fans were that New Year's night -- a level of support that invariably influenced Gator Bowl officials to snatch these two teams over conference teams with arguably better season credentials.

Like Clemson (7-5), the Cornhuskers (8-4) responded to their first-year coach by closing the regular season with a wave of positive momentum.

They won five of their final six under Bo Pelini, who returned to Nebraska after serving as LSU's defensive coordinator the previous three seasons.

Pelini cut his teeth as an NFL assistant but made his name as Nebraska's defensive coordinator under Osborne in 2003. Thus, he was the popular choice to replace Bill Callahan when Callahan was fired a year ago.

"The way they finished and the way we finished, that's probably why they wanted to put these two teams together," swinney said.

Callahan's vast changes to the program's style didn't sit well with Nebraska faithful, yet the Cornhuskers' successes stem in as much from the fact Pelini retained offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and his spread offensive approach.

Nebraska averages 36.2 points per game -- of course, good for only sixth spot in the lopsided Big 12. It has topped 28 points the past seven games and eclipsed 40 in each of the past three, all wins.

Relying heavily on a short passing game, senior quarterback Joe Ganz has thrown 23 touchdowns and averages 277.7 passing yards per game.

More significantly, though, Pelini put a tourniquet on a defense that allowed 37.9 points per game last year. The Cornhuskers give up nearly eight fewer points per game (29.2) this season.

Three of Nebraska's four losses came at the hands of offensive juggernauts Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Missouri, while the fourth occurred in late september to ACC champion Virginia Tech.

"We felt we made progress, but not as much as we wanted to as far as our record," Pelini said.

Clemson begins bowl practices Friday, but Nebraska got in at least two workouts last week to begin Gator Bowl preparations.

Pelini said he watched a couple of Clemson games this season, yet the Cornhuskers should already have some insider insight into the Tigers' personnel and scheme.

Defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders was North Carolina's defensive coordinator from 2004-2006 and recruited Tigers such as receiver Jacoby Ford and safety Marcus Gilchrist.

Pelini said from what he's seen, Clemson made a wise decision to hire Swinney.

"What he was able to under the kind of adversity that faced the program there at midseason when they made the coaching change, he was able to keep the kids' attention and got them to buy in," Pelini said. "Everything he's been able to accomplish with that football team shows the character on that football team."


• Who: Clemson Tigers (7-5) vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers (8-4)

• When: Jan. 1, 1 p.m.

• Where: Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, Jacksonville, Fla.

• TV: CBS (Comporium cable channels 5 and 7 in Rock Hill)