This is all icing on the cake for Nebraska. Clemson, too. Few could have imagined either program would be playing in a New Year's Day bowl.
The Huskers missed the postseason in two of the past three seasons, which led to the dismissal of coach Bill Callahan. Nebraska turned to Bo Pelini, hoping and praying he could restore the lost luster. No one expected a miracle in Year One, and to be playing on Jan. 1 is beyond belief to most Big Red fans.
WHEN: 1 p.m. Jan. 1.
WHERE: Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, Jacksonville, Fla.
TV: CBS (Craig Bolerjack will do play-by-play, with Steve Beuerlein and Dan Fouts as the analysts).
THE LINE: Clemson by 2.5.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Clemson 3-5, Nebraska 2-4.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Clemson 13th, Nebraska 39th.
BCS RANKINGS: N/A for either team.
COACHES: Nebraska − Bo Pelini (1-0 in bowls); Clemson − Dabo Swinney (first bowl).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: It's a chance to watch first-year coaches Pelini and Swinney attempt to continue to put their stamp on once-proud programs. At one point this fall, Clemson was 4-5 and Nebraska 5-4. But the Huskers rallied to win a share of the Big 12 North title. Both finished with a flurry.
KEY STAT: Clemson ranks ninth in the nation in scoring defense (16.6 ppg), while Nebraska ranks 18th in the nation in scoring offense (36.2 ppg).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Clemson running back C.J. Spiller is one of the nation's most electric players, the quintessential big-play-waiting-to-happen guy and the ACC leader in all-purpose yards. Spiller doubles as a great return man, giving the Tigers a weapon unlike any other on the field.
"We wanted to make progress and we felt like we've made progress," Pelini said. "We are not as far as we wanted to go this year as far as the record is concerned, but it gives us an opportunity to get one more win. We are excited about how far we've come as a football team and I think this is a great reward for our team.
"The kids have worked hard, bought in to a new coaching staff and went through a lot of adversity along the way, all the way back from when we were hired and the coaching change happened until now."
Clemson's path to Jacksonville, Fla., has been even more circuitous. The Tigers entered 2008 as the preseason ACC favorite, but the Tigers spun out of control quickly, beginning with a 34-10 loss to Alabama in the opener. Clemson stumbled to a 3-3 start and coach Tommy Bowden "resigned." A season filled with so much promise was on the brink, but Clemson got new life after Dabo Swinney took over as interim coach. He guided the Tigers to a 4-2 finish, getting Clemson into the Gator Bowl and earning the full-time coaching gig.
"Nebraska has finished strong," Swinney said. "Both of us won our last three games and will be entering this game playing our best football of the season. Coach Pelini has done a terrific job and has an outstanding staff. They have been outstanding on offense all year, averaging over 36 points a game, so this will be a great challenge for our defense against a productive Big 12 offense."
Meeting Nebraska in the Gator Bowl has special significance for Clemson fans. The teams last met in the Orange Bowl after the 1981 season, with the Tigers topping the Huskers to win the national championship.
While the stakes aren't that high in this meeting, both coaches know this game is a chance to further establish a winning foundation in what will be the first bowl game involving coaches in their first seasons as Football Bowl Subdivision (i.e., Division I-A) coaches since the 2006 Motor City Bowl between Middle Tennessee's Rick Stockstill and Central Michigan's Jeff Quinn, who was serving as the interim coach after Brian Kelly left for Cincinnati.
Who has the edge?
Clemson run offense vs. Nebraska run defense Despite having dynamic tailbacks in James Davis and C.J. Spiller, the Tigers have struggled to run consistently because the line has not jelled. Expect Clemson again to struggle to run against a strong Huskers run defense that yields just 125.8 yards per game and is led by tackle Ndamukong Suh.
Clemson pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense Nebraska's secondary isn't overly talented, but secondary coach Marvin Sanders has done a nice job making everything work. Still, Clemson's passing attack - which ranks first in the ACC - may be too much for the Huskers to handle. QB Cullen Harper has had a disappointing season, but he did rally down the stretch. Look for Huskers DE Zach Potter to get after Harper.
Nebraska run offense vs. Clemson run defense This isn't your father's Nebraska; the Huskers are 14th nationally in passing offense and 36th in rushing offense. Roy Helu has come on to be the Huskers' top rusher, while Marlon Lucky is another viable option who could find room to work vs. a spotty Clemson front seven that can be gashed. Linebacker Kavell Conner has to come up big for Clemson.
Nebraska pass offense vs. Clemson pass defense Husker quarterback Joe Ganz's stellar season has been overshadowed by all of the other brilliant passers in the Big 12. Ganz has good targets in Nate Swift and Todd Peterson. Clemson's pass defense ranks third in the ACC and 10th in the nation and is led by cornerback Chris Chancellor and strong safety Michael Hamlin. It's vital that defensive end Ricky Sapp get pressure on Ganz.
Clemson special teams vs. Nebraska special teams Spiller is one of the nation's top return men, and kicker Mark Buchholz is a weapon. The Huskers also have a weapon in the return game in Swift. Kicker Alex Henery has a big leg, as evidenced by his school-record, 57-yard field goal in a victory over Colorado.
Clemson coaches vs. Nebraska coaches Bo Pelini has coached in a bowl before, leading the Huskers to a victory over Michigan State after the 2003 season while serving as interim head coach following the departure of Frank Solich. Pelini also has more staff stability compared to Clemson, where Dabo Swinney still is building his unit after being named coach a few weeks ago.
X-factor: Both teams have struggled to hang on to the ball. Clemson has committed 27 turnovers, while Nebraska has given it away 25 times. Whichever team hangs onto the ball best likely will have an edge in securing victory.
Nebraska will win if: The Huskers need to be able to run the ball. That means it will be vital for the Big Red to establish its passing game to loosen Clemson's defense, which will create room for the Huskers' backs.
Clemson will win if: Harper needs to stay as hot as he was during the Tigers' strong stretch run. He has a potent target in Aaron Kelly, who is the ACC's career receptions leader. If Clemson is slinging with success, Davis and Spiller will be difficult to stop.
The picks Tom Dienhart: Nebraska 29, Clemson 28
Mike Huguenin: Nebraska 24, Clemson 19