It’s nearly the end of the college football season. Soon, all we will have are our memories, and the highlights to watch repeatedly on YouTube. Yes, I know spring football will be there to help us get through the long 8-month drought, but it’s just not the same.

Sad days indeed.

But the holiday season isn’t a time for the Fearless Prediction to be miserable. We want to go out with a bang by making the right call as the Vols face Clemson in the Orange Bowl, Tennessee’s 1st NY6 bowl game since the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s morning 2005.

Tennessee could have been sent to the Sugar Bowl. But instead, that slot went to Alabama, because the College Football Playoff committee apparently didn’t know that Tennessee beat Alabama, or that Tennessee pounded an LSU team that beat Alabama, or that Tennessee had a better strength of schedule than Alabama, or that the Vols and Crimson Tide both finished the regular season with the same record.

But I digress … Had you told any Vols fan back in August that they would go 10-2, beat Florida, Alabama and LSU and get picked for the Orange Bowl, that’s a deal he’d make every time.

The Vols and Tigers don’t have much recent history. Their last meeting came at the end of the 2003 season, a 27-14 Peach Bowl win for Clemson. That’s the only time these teams have played since 1977.

UT looks a lot different today in terms of personnel than it did in the middle of November. Quarterback Hendon Hooker tore his ACL in the South Carolina game. Receivers Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt have opted out to prepare for the NFL Draft, as has linebacker Jeremy Banks. Clemson is also missing some key guys, as it will be without defensive lineman Myles Murphy, who has opted out, and linebacker Trenton Simpson, who is injured. Quarterback DJ Uiagalelei headed to the transfer portal after he was benched early in the ACC Championship Game.

So the 2 former backup QBs — Joe Milton III for Tennessee and Cade Klubnik for Clemson — will get the chance to show a national television audience what they can do.

For Milton, this is his chance to solidify himself as the frontrunner to be Tennessee’s starting QB in 2023. He will be a 6th-year senior and has been in Josh Heupel’s offense since early 2021, but there is no guarantee that the position will be his come September. Rising redshirt freshman Tayven Jackson and true freshman Nico Iamaleava are waiting in the wings, with Iamaleava already practicing with the Vols. Milton was impressive in the regular-season finale against Vanderbilt, but the Tigers’ 24th-ranked defense will pose a much tougher challenge.

Milton will likely lean on Bru McCoy, who is the Vols’ best remaining pass catcher. McCoy was 2nd on the Vols in catches (48) and receiving yards (619) this season. His 27-yard catch in the waning seconds of the Alabama game will be remembered by UT fans for generations. Running backs Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small should get their fair share of carries against Clemson and could take a lot of pressure off Milton.

Klubnik played even less than Milton during the regular season, throwing only 11 passes in mop-up duty. But he looked great in relief of Uiagalelei in that ACC title game, completing 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards and 1 TD. He will throw to another true freshman, wide receiver Antonio Williams, to move the football through the air. Williams led the Tigers in catches (53) and receiving yards (563) this season, while also catching 4 TD passes.

Tennessee will also have to worry about Clemson’s star sophomore running back Will Shipley. He rushed for 1,110 yards and 15 TDs while also catching 34 passes out of the backfield. Tennessee is ranked 86th in total defense (not great, Bob!), but it is solid against the run, allowing fewer than 112 yards per game.

Back in the day, bowl games really were exhibitions. In 1951, the Vols lost to Maryland in the Sugar Bowl, but the AP voted Tennessee national champions before that game was even played. Programs didn’t stress those games nearly to the point that they did in the decades that followed.

Now, with the advent of the Playoff, we are kind of at that point again. Even a bowl game with the stature and history of the Orange Bowl isn’t as important without the possibility of a national championship on the line.

When you try to figure out which team is more motivated to play after missing out on the CFP, then consider that each has had a long layoff plus the opt-outs of important players and a new QB leading the offense, it makes predicting an outcome that much tougher.

But there has to be a winner. It isn’t 1993, and this game can’t end in a tie, so here goes …

Fearless Prediction time …

Clemson 34, Tennessee 31