Neither participant in the Music City Bowl was expected to be here.
Kentucky hadn't played in a bowl game since 1999 and had little reason to expect that to change after going 9-25 in the first three seasons of Rich Brooks' coaching tenure.
Clemson owned legitimate Bowl Championship Series aspirations when it won seven of its first eight games this season.
Kentucky then began to surge just as Clemson was starting its second-half swoon. The Wildcats won four of their last five games, while Clemson dropped three of its final four contests.
"Our schedule got more difficult toward the end of the year," Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said. "We've lost by a couple of points to some very good teams. In some cases we've been one possession away from winning."
Clemson's motivation – or lack thereof – could end up determining who wins the showdown at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn. (ESPN, 1 p.m.).
On paper, Clemson (8-4) looks like a much better team than Kentucky (7-5).
Clemson owns one of the nation's most explosive rushing attacks, while Kentucky ranks among the worst Division I-A programs in most defensive categories.
The Tigers have won bowl games three of the last four years, while Kentucky's players aren't accustomed to playing in the postseason.
But will the Tigers be excited about playing in the Music City Bowl when they once had realistic hopes of playing in the Orange?
While Clemson hoped to spend the holidays elsewhere, Kentucky can't hide its excitement about playing in nearby Nashville. Kentucky fans gobbled up enough tickets to make this game a quick sellout.
"We're excited about getting to a bowl game," Kentucky center Matt McCutchan said. "This is what I have waited for. That is why I came here – to turn this program around and do some good things."
An upset victory over Clemson would show Kentucky really has turned it around under Brooks.
Although the Wildcats already have exceeded expectations, they believe a bowl victory would represent the perfect punctuation to a memorable season.
"We just can't relax now and say we've made it to postseason and we've reached a goal," Brooks said. "We want to win this thing. It makes the reunions a lot better when you're the Music City Bowl champion than when you're 7-6."
Music City Bowl: Clemson (8-4) vs. Kentucky (7-5)
When: Dec. 29, 1 p.m. Where: LP Field, Nashville, Tenn. TV info: ESPN, Dave Pasch (play-by-play), Rod Gilmore (color), Trevor Matich (color), Stacey Dales (sideline).
Clemson Tigers Conference: ACC Record: 8-4, 5-3 Coach: Tommy Bowden (60-37, eighth season; 78-41 in 10 seasons overall). Passing leader:Will Proctor (160-of-265, 2,081 yards, 13 TDs, 10 INTs). Rushing leaders:James Davis (195 carries, 1,134 yards, 17 TDs), C.J. Spiller (124 carries, 914 yards, 10 TDs). Receiving leaders:Chansi Stuckey (45 catches, 607 yards, three TDs), Aaron Kelly (24 catches, 289 yards, two TDs), Tyler Grisham (20 catches, 215 yards, two TDs), C.J. Spiller (19 catches, 210 yards, two TDs). Defensive leaders: DE Gaines Adams (38 solos, 18 assists, 15½ tackles for loss, 10 ½ sacks, six pass breakups), LB Nick Watkins (72 solos, 36 assists, six tackles for loss, one sack), LB Antonio Clay (64 solos, 29 assists, 9½ tackles for loss, 1½ sacks, four pass breakups), S Chris Clemons (58 solos, 40 assists, one tackle for loss, eight pass breakups).
Kentucky Wildcats Conference: SEC Record: 7-5, 4-4 Coach: Rich Brooks (16-30, fourth season at Kentucky; 107-138-4 in 21 seasons overall). Passing leader:Andre' Woodson (244-of-391, 3,216 yards, 28 TDs, seven INTs). Rushing leader:Rafael Little (123 carries, 619 yards, three TDs), Tony Dixon (79 carries, 274 yards, four TDs), Alfonso Smith (60 carries, 250 yards, two TDs). Receiving leaders:Keenan Burton (72 catches, 1,006 yards, 12 TDs), Dicky Lyons Jr. (48 catches, 772 yards, eight TDs), Rafael Little (29 catches, 377 yards, two TDs), Jacob Tamme (28 catches, 327 yards, one TD). Defensive leaders: LB Wesley Woodyard (73 solos, 37 assists, 8½ tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries), LB Braxton Kelley (56 solos, 24 assists, 4½ tackles for loss). CB Trevard Lindley (41 solos, nine assists, 12 pass breakups).
Clemson running game vs. Kentucky run defense: This represents the biggest mismatch of the game. James Davis and C.J. Spiller helped Clemson average 225.2 rushing yards per game to rank fifth in the country. Kentucky ranks 112th out of 119 Division I-A teams in rushing defense and has allowed more than five yards per carry. Davis struggled late in the regular season after a red-hot start, but look for him and Spiller to both enjoy big days against Kentucky. Edge: Clemson.
Clemson passing game vs. Kentucky pass defense: Clemson's late-season slump occurred in part because of quarterback Will Proctor's ineffectiveness. Proctor threw four interceptions and two touchdown passes as Clemson lost three of its last four games. Proctor must watch out for Kentucky cornerback Trevard Lindley, who ranks second in the SEC with 12 pass breakups. If Proctor avoids Lindley, he could have success against a Kentucky team that ranked 118th out of 119 Division I-A teams – ahead of only Kansas – in pass defense. Edge: Clemson.
Kentucky running game vs. Clemson run defense: After dealing with a knee injury for much of the season, Rafael Little rushed for 333 yards in the Wildcats' last three games. Little arguably is Kentucky's best player when healthy, but he could struggle to find running room against a Clemson defense that allows only 2.9 yards per carry. Edge: Clemson.
Kentucky passing game vs. Clemson pass defense: Kentucky's advantage in this area gives the Wildcats a chance to pull off the upset. Andre' Woodson leads the SEC in passing yards per game, total offense and touchdown passes. Keenan Burton ranks seventh in the nation in all-purpose yards per game to lead a talented receiving corps that also features Dicky Lyons and tight end Jacob Tamme. Little also is a pass-catching threat out of the backfield. The Wildcats will face a Clemson secondary that must find a way to replace suspended starting cornerback Duane Coleman. All-America defensive end Gaines Adams could have a big day against a Kentucky offensive line that allows nearly three sacks per game. Edge: Kentucky.
Clemson coaches vs. Kentucky coaches: Kentucky's surprising season earned Rich Brooks a contract extension, but he still has lost nearly two-thirds of his games since taking over the Wildcats. Clemson fans might quibble about the Tigers' relatively disappointing performance under Tommy Bowden this season, but they can't criticize their coach's postseason record. The Tigers have won three of their last four bowl games. Edge: Clemson.
Clemson will win if: Clemson needs to hand the ball to Davis and Spiller early and often to control the clock and keep Kentucky's high-powered offense off the field.
Kentucky will win if: Kentucky made it to a bowl game by wining plenty of shootouts, but the Wildcats won't beat Clemson unless they have some semblance of a defense. The Wildcats must limit big plays and prevent Clemson from putting this game away early. If the Wildcats can stay close in the fourth quarter, Woodson and Co. might find a way to win the game.
Injury situation:Clemson tight end Thomas Hunter will miss the game after breaking a bone in his right foot during a practice earlier this month. Hunter had caught 16 passes for 305 yards this season. ... Davis had a bruised shoulder and Spiller had a sore ankle, but the two standout tailbacks expect to be at full strength for the bowl game. ... Both teams made discipline-related moves that will hurt their depth for this game. Clemson suspended starting cornerback Duane Coleman following his drug-related arrest. Redshirt freshman Chris Chancellor likely will start in place of Coleman, who ranks fourth on the team with 81 total tackles. ... Kentucky reserve defensive tackle Ricky Abren was kicked off the team and reserve cornerback Jarrell Williams was suspended for this game for violation of team rules.
Worth noting: This marks Kentucky's first bowl appearance since losing 20-13 to Syracuse in the 1999 Music City Bowl. … Kentucky and Clemson have met in a bowl game before. Emory Smith – Emmitt's brother – caught a 21-yard touchdown pass from Patrick Sapp with 20 seconds remaining to give Clemson a 14-13 victory over Kentucky in the 1993 Peach Bowl. … Kentucky leads the all-time series 7-4, but the two teams haven't met since that Peach Bowl game. Kentucky last beat Clemson 26-7 in 1985. … Clemson is ranked in the top 15 in pass efficiency defense (fourth), total defense (12th) and scoring defense (15th). Kentucky is ranked 101st or worse in scoring defense (101st), pass efficiency defense (104th), rushing defense (112th), pass defense (118th) and total defense (118th). … Clemson leads the ACC in rushing offense, total offense and scoring offense. … The Tigers are gaining 6.5 yards per play, which is the highest average by a Clemson team in history. The 1950 team currently owns the record with a season average of 6.2 yards per play. … Kentucky ranks fifth in the nation with a turnover margin of plus-13. Kentucky has forced 28 turnovers this season. … Kentucky has only six recruited scholarship seniors on its team, which is tied for the fewest in the nation. Kentucky has played 13 true freshmen this year, which represents the fifth-highest total in the nation.
Line: Clemson by 9½.
Megargee's pick: Clemson 38-28. Other Rivals.com Expert picks: Olin Buchanan, national college football writer: Clemson 31-21 Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief: Kentucky 21-14. Bill King, RivalsRadio host: Clemson 31-17. Make your picks on Rivals.com Bowl Pick 'Em.