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December 28, 2006
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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."