The dream died early for Clemson and Iowa State in 2021. Both teams came into the season ranked in the top 10, but by the end of September, they each had two losses and were out of the playoff chase. Instead, they will battle it out in Orlando in the Cheez-it Bowl.
After starting the year 2-2, Clemson managed to win seven of its last eight games, including the final five. Right up until Thanksgiving weekend, the Tigers had a shot to win the ACC Atlantic Division. Iowa State, on the other hand, never really found its footing all year. After beating Oklahoma State to get to 5-2, the Cyclones lost three of their next four games, finishing at 7-5 overall and 5-4 in the Big 12.
This will be the first-ever game between the Tigers and the Cyclones. The last time Clemson failed to qualify for the College Football Playoff, they took part in the 2014 version of this game, which was then called the Russell Athletic Bowl. Iowa State was in Orlando in 2019 for the then Camping World Bowl, which they lost to Notre Dame.
Cheez-It Bowl: No. 19 Clemson (9-3) vs. Iowa State (7-5)
When: Wednesday, Dec. 29 at 5:45 p.m. ET
Where: Camping World Stadium (Orlando, Fla.)
Spread: Clemson -1
When Clemson Has the Ball
The Clemson offense was troubling for most of the season, and even at the end of the year when the Tigers found some success, it was hardly explosive. Much of the focus was on quarterback DJ Uiagalelei and for good reason. The sophomore came into the season on several magazine covers, including Athlon, and pocketed some good NIL money courtesy of Dr. Pepper. But things did not go as planned. He completed just 55 percent of his throws and had nine touchdowns and nine interceptions. His 109 passer rating was last among qualifying ACC quarterbacks.
But the line wasn't much help, receivers were injured and inconsistent, and it took quite some time to get the running game going. In all actuality, it was a complete team effort. And in the Cheez-It Bowl, Uiagalelei won't have a full complement of repass catchers. Leading receiver Justyn Ross is skipping the game to prep for the NFL draft and Joseph Ngata, who has been out since early November with a foot injury, is questionable. One player that is ready to go is running back Will Shipley. The prized freshman ended the year strong, registering three 100-yard outings in his last four appearances.
While Iowa State did not have the year it would have liked, it was not because of the effort defensively. The Cyclones gave up just 309 yards per game, which was good for 10th nationally, and they had the 13th-ranked pass defense. The Clemson offensive line better be acutely aware of Iowa State's two ends, edge rusher Will McDonald IV and the massive Eyioma Uwazurike. The pair combined for 25.5 tackles for a loss on the year, 20 of which were sacks. Linebacker Mike Rose joined the two defensive linemen on the All-Big 12 first team, and defensive back Isheem Young was a second-team selection.
When Iowa State Has the Ball
The Cyclones' offensive preparation had to change quite a bit when star running back Breece Hall decided to skip the bowl game. A Doak Walker Award Finalist and the 2021 Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year was the primary Iowa State weapon, rushing for 1,472 yards and 20 touchdowns and catching 36 passes for three more scores. Reserve Jirehl Brock is a talented replacement, but he's not Hall.
So more will be asked of quarterback Brock Purdy and his two top pass catchers, wide receiver Xavier Hutchinson and All-American tight end Charlie Kolar. Purdy finished the year fourth in America with a 73.1 completion percentage and was named to the All-Big 12 second team. This is a passing game that relies on efficiency, but they can create some chunk plays on occasion. How often they can do that without the threat of Hall in the running game remains to be seen.
Trying to come up with big plays against this Clemson defense will be a big challenge. While the Clemson offense had problems this season, the team is 9-3 because of the defensive unit. They were tops in the ACC in both scoring and total defense, and much of that is because of the pressure they can bring from the front seven. Linebacker James Skalski has been a mainstay for several years, and fellow second-leveler Trenton Simpson is a havoc creator. Up front, Myles Murphy is the best of a group of nasty linemen who are tough to block. While the Tigers' front seven is a bear, the secondary, led by All-ACC corner Andrew Booth Jr. and Mario Goodrich is pretty tough as well.
Clemson lost both coordinators, but how the team plays on defense will be more interesting. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who left to become Oklahoma's head coach, had his fingerprints all over this unit, and because they were more effective this year than the offense, there is a bigger chance for a drop-off in production. The system will undoubtedly remain the same, but how will the defense react now that Venables is gone?
Both teams will look substantially different in the Cheez-It Bowl. Clemson may have suffered more personnel losses — offensive coordinator Tony Elliott has also left to coach Virginia — but the most impactful player moving on is Iowa State's Hall. The Tigers also will be breaking in new coordinators, so adjustments have to be made in that regard too. But the Tigers would also seem to be the team with more to play for. Head coach Dabo Swinney would love to continue the team's recent success, and winning this game would energize his team going into offseason workouts. It would clinch the Tigers' 11th straight double-digit win season and give the new coordinators confidence that they can continue what is already in place. Beyond everything else, Clemson also has the more talented team, especially defensively against the Iowa State offense. Not many points will be put on the board, but Clemson will have more than Iowa State when it is all said and done.
Prediction: Clemson 20, Iowa State 14
Podcast: Previewing Every Bowl Game
– Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.