After playing in the ACC title game last season and falling just shy of a BCS berth, Clemson barely qualified for a bowl game this year as it struggled to close out the season.
Still, the Tigers have an opportunity to finish 2010 on a high note just a few hours outside of campus as they take on South Florida in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, N.C., on Friday.
Clemson went through some growing pains after losing last season's starting running back C.J. Spiller, a 2010 first-round NFL draft pick. After going 9-5 in 2009, the Tigers finished 6-6 this year and closed the regular season with a 29-7 loss to intrastate rival South Carolina on Nov. 27.
Despite that one-sided defeat, four of Clemson's other losses were by a combined 17 points, including a heartbreaking 27-24 loss Sept. 18 at Auburn, which is playing in the BCS title game.
Quarterback Kyle Parker is expected to start against the Bulls after he was benched in the third quarter against the Gamecocks following an interception that was returned for a touchdown. He and coach Dabo Swinney appeared to have a heated exchange on the sidelines, and there was speculation that Parker would forgo playing in the bowl game in favor of focusing on his baseball career.
Parker turned down $800,000 in additional money from the Colorado Rockies to play another season for Clemson.
Despite Parker's struggles, Swinney said he wouldn't be turning things over to freshman Tajh Boyd, who will likely be the starting quarterback next year.
"The best way to prepare for next year is winning this game," Swinney said.
Playing at Charlotte, the Tigers will be just two hours from campus, making it practically a home game.
While Parker led a shaky offense, Clemson's defense was solid. The Tigers were tied for ninth in the FBS in scoring defense, giving up 17.8 points per game.
Da'Quan Bowers, who won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the nation's top defensive player, was a big reason. He led the nation with 15 1/2 sacks and his 25 tackles for a loss ranked second. He also broke the school record for sacks by a defensive lineman.
"Its his size and the ability to move and bend and change direction and accelerate at 275 pounds," Swinney said. "He's just extremely gifted and blessed with athleticism. But this year he's put a tremendous work ethic and consistent drive with it."
South Florida will have the difficult task of trying to slow Bowers, who could be leaving school early for the NFL. The Bulls, however, ranked 103rd in the nation in total offense with 311.9 yards per game.
Despite the struggles on offense, it was a promising season under first-year coach Skip Holtz.
South Florida matched its regular season record from last year at 7-5, and three of those losses were by a touchdown or less. The team won four of its final six games, most notably a victory at in-state rival Miami.
In his second year as a starter, B.J. Daniels threw for 1,496 yards, nine touchdowns and 12 interceptions, a disappointing drop off after having 1,983 yards passing, 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions the previous season. He missed the 19-16 season-finale loss to Connecticut on Dec. 4 after suffering a leg injury the previous week against Miami.
Holtz said the team is preparing as if walk-on Bobby Eveld is going to start against Clemson since Daniels has seen limited action in practices. Eveld came in against Miami and then started against the Huskies, going 22 of 41 for 195 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions.
"We're still trying to get (Daniels) healthy," Holtz said. "He's not able to open it up and run around and do all those things yet. Right now, all we can do is work with who's here. Right now, I'm not even (thinking) what happens if? I'm not trying to do all that right now."
Freshman running back Bradley Battles and fullback Jeff Hawkins will be out after suffering knee injuries. Battles was the No. 3 back for most of the season while Hawkins had seen more playing time against Connecticut because starting fullback Richard Kelly was sidelined with a broken thumb.
With South Florida lacking in offensive depth, the pressure again will be on the defense. The Bulls rank 20th in overall defense with 319.7 yards allowed per game.
This is the second time South Florida is playing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, having lost 14-0 to North Carolina State in 2005.
AccuScore has powered more than 10,000 simulations for every College Football game on ESPN.com, calculating how each team's performance changes in response to game conditions and opponent's abilities. Each game is simulated and the game is replayed a minimum of 10,000 times to generate forecasted winning percentages.
Look elsewhere for shootouts. Clemson finished 86th nationally in scoring this year, while South Florida was right behind at 88th. Instead, watch for two fast, SEC-caliber defenses. The Tigers are led by national sack champ Da'Quan Bowers, while the Bulls take a no-name but hard-hitting approach. Quarterbacks beware. -- Brian Bennett