Comparable skid to end the season. Same uninspiring opponent at the same bowl. The Nashville weather is even cold and dreary again.
Clemson's seniors were freshmen in 2006 when the Tigers drudged through a 28-20 Music City Bowl defeat to Kentucky. They have said all the right things for why this trip should be different. But proof will only come via performance.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The State
So long, C.J.
Senior running back C.J. Spiller is at 31 school records and counting. But even amid the accolades, it is human nature to wonder whether Spiller's skill and attributes have gone fully appreciated. One thing seems certain: Spiller is bound to net more than the five carries he logged in this bowl as a freshman, which helped fuel thoughts of transferring to Florida.
Steele or paper machete?
The bloom has come off the Clemson defense's rose the past three contests, prompting coordinator Kevin Steele to go on the offensive recently in defense of players whom had come under scrutiny. But there is no arguing that as a whole, the Tigers played undisciplined against Virginia, lost their sensibilities for the first time against South Carolina and were on their heels against Georgia Tech.
Kentucky's use of the "wildcat" package mimics the read-option plays that have haunted Clemson. Stopping that is the first step in proving they were not instead exposed down the stretch.
Losing to USC in the regular-season finale, coupled with ACC champion Georgia Tech's defeat to Georgia, refreshed the conference's black eye nationally. The Tigers stand to lose more through defeat than they do gain through victory, and conference credibility fits into this category. Another loss to a middle-of-the-pack SEC squad would increase the image problem.
After Clemson beat Virginia to clinch the Atlantic Division title, it seemed Dabo Swinney's first full season would be construed a success. But that was before imploding at USC and a close loss in the ACC championship game to Georgia Tech.
Beat Kentucky, and the Tigers save some face by finishing 9-5. That would be looked upon much more favorably than an 8-6 record and season-ending three-game losing streak.
GAME WITHIN A GAME
Kentucky WR/RB Randall Cobb vs. Clemson LB Brandon Maye
The 5-foot-11, 190-pound sophomore has grown into a jack of all trades since starting quarterback Mike Hartline went down with an injury. The Wildcats line Cobb up everywhere from his standard receiver spot to running back to quarterback, where he made the "WildCobb" package Kentucky's most effective offensive set. He leads the team in receiving (37-427-4 TDs) and ranks second in rushing (551 yards, 10 TDs).
How he'll win:
The read-option element in the "Wildcat" has sliced and diced Clemson throughout the season. Until proven otherwise, the Tigers have shown no capacity to stop it, and Kentucky is not afraid to rely on it. By Clemson's count, Kentucky used it 87 snaps the previous four games - somewhere between 33 and 40 percent of their snaps.
Key number: 15
Cobb's total touchdowns, second in the SEC behind Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram.
The 6-foot-2, 235-pound sophomore is undersized by defensive coordinator Kevin Steele's standard at middle linebacker, but he has the highest motor and most spirit of the available options. Steele charges his middle linebacker to be the quarterback of the defense, making the audibles based on what he sees. Steele said Maye has "made progress" in that regard.
How he'll win:
Opinions vary on why the Tigers have struggled against mobile quarterbacks, but the sense is Maye has been a key contributor because of a penchant for getting out of position from his assigned gap. Maye has spent extra time working with Steele installing what Steele called a "simpler application" for defending Cobb as quarterback.
Key number: 11
Maye's average tackles per game the past four contests
Five Questions ... C.J. Spiller
Dabo Swinney said when you met before announcing your return last January, you felt like you "had to" turn pro and were intending to do so. Is that accurate?
I just went in there and told him I felt I had pressure on me. He's a very faithful guy, so we talked about letting the Lord give you guidance. After he said that, I felt some peace come to me. And God guided me in the right path.
Were you caught off-guard by getting a standing ovation from the school's Board of Trustees when you crossed the stage at graduation?
It was a great honor, a very humbling honor. You really don't realize how many lives you touch or who's watching you. That's why I'm very careful with what I do and how I present myself on and off the field.
What's the first thing that comes to mind from the 2006 Music City Bowl against Kentucky?
Cold, cold weather the whole week. You remember walking off the field having lost that game - really, it was the only memory you could have. They outplayed us, had more energy, and wanted it more.
This time around, it should be very different. I'm looking forward to it. We're going into this game trying to win it. You see guys practicing with a purpose to win. And we're a different, closer group. I don't think any of our leaders will let our guys come out and be lackadaisical.
What are your plans after the bowl?
Go home and relax and regroup. Then I'll start back training and get ready for the NFL. I'm not even sure where I'll do my combine (preparation) yet. My main focus is getting my toe as healthy as possible.
I've really just been trying to have fun. I haven't been counting down the number of days I have left. I've just been trying to take advantage of the days here I've been given. Once all is said and done, I'll miss this place. But I've learned a whole lot to be able to go out into the world.
What do you think your legacy at Clemson will be?
I'm not sure. Hopefully they'll see more than my football career. Hopefully they see a great person who is committed to everything he does. I'm far from perfect, but I try my best to do everything the right way.
Clemson: OL J.K. Jay (back) and G Mason Cloy (broken leg)are out.
Kentucky: LB Sam Maxwell (shoulder) is out; LB Ronnie Sneed (shin) is questionable; QB Mike Hartline (knee) is probable.
PREDICTION: Kentucky 28, Clemson 21