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Tennessee vs Clemson in Orange Bowl could be best game beyond College Football Playoff

Tennessee football will play in perhaps the best bowl outside the College Football Playoff.

That’s bittersweet.

After all, the Vols were once in the thick of the CFP hunt. But their consolation prize is as good as any that Tennessee has gotten in decades.

That latter message was clear when Tennessee’s Josh Heupel and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney convened for the Orange Bowl kickoff coaches press conference in Miami on Wednesday.

“This game is as big as it gets and as good as it gets,” said Heupel, who won the 2000 national title in the Orange Bowl as Oklahoma’s quarterback. “(Winning the national title) is my favorite Orange Bowl moment, in case you were wondering.”

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No. 6 Tennessee (10-2) will play No. 7 Clemson (11-2) on Dec. 30 (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Hard Rock Stadium.

Their rankings support the stature of the matchup. Aside from national title games and CFP semifinals, no Orange Bowl matchup has featured two teams ranked this high since No. 5 USC beat No. 3 Iowa in 2003.

Coincidentally, that’s around the last time the Vols were this good.

In 2004, Tennessee was ranked No. 6 when it lost to Clemson in the Peach Bowl. It's climbed back into the conversation of college football's best teams just in time to face Clemson again.

Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel leads his players on to the field before the game against Vanderbilt at FirstBank Stadium Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.
Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel leads his players on to the field before the game against Vanderbilt at FirstBank Stadium Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.

“Vol Nation will show up in droves because it will be an exciting opportunity against a great football team,” Heupel said. “It’s been 25 years since Tennessee has been here. This is a unique opportunity for a unique group of young men that has changed the trajectory of Tennessee football.”

'This is a playoff game'

Clemson also narrowly missed its chance at the CFP.

“For both programs, to me, this is a playoff game,” Swinney said. “And in a couple of years, it would be a playoff game.”

The CFP will expand to 12 teams in 2024. For now, this is perhaps the best of the rest – that is, the most attractive game among the New Year’s Six bowls.

That's debatable but believable.

No. 5 Alabama will play No. 9 Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl. No. 8 Utah will face No. 11 Penn State in the Rose Bowl. No. 10 USC will play No. 16 Tulane in the Cotton Bowl.

The Vols are happy with where they landed, considering the playoff was barely beyond their reach.

But Heupel, the AP SEC Coach of the Year in his second season, doesn’t plan on this being a one-hit wonder.

“I believe and know that we’ll be in a bunch of these big games as our program continues to grow,” Heupel said. “We get an opportunity to finish the season the right way. And then in some ways, you’re kicking off the following season too.

“It’s on a national stage, which can have a huge impact on recruiting. And we get a chance to take another step as a program.”

Reach Adam Sparks at adam.sparks@knoxnews.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Is Tennessee-Clemson in Orange top bowl after College Football Playoff?