NASHVILLE — Often the deciding factor in bowl games is simply who wants to be there and who doesn't.
That makes the 2009 Music City Bowl almost impossible to get a read on because both teams come in with serious questions regarding their motivation.
During the season, the Kentucky players openly campaigned not to return to a Tennessee bowl game for a fourth straight year. Then they let an Outback Bowl bid slip through their hands with another heartbreaking loss to Tennessee.
Clemson fell five points short of a likely Orange Bowl bid in an Atlantic Coast Conference championship game loss to Georgia Tech. Then the next best ACC bowl, the Gator Bowl, passed over the Tigers to play host to Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden's farewell game.
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Last week, Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks acknowledged that a team's frame of mind can affect its performance in a bowl game but said the Cats' spirits should be lifted by the chance to deliver an unprecedented fourth consecutive bowl win for the program.
"I think there's something to that; some teams go in (to bowl games) disappointed," he said. "They'd rather be here, they'd rather be there. But no matter what your goals were at the start of the season, to be in post-season play is not something anybody should take for granted, and certainly Kentucky should never take that for granted."
While bowl wins have become the norm for UK's seniors, Clemson's senior class will be looking for its first. The Tigers lost to Kentucky in the 2006 Music City Bowl and then followed that up with losses to Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and Nebraska in the Gator Bowl.
The tables have somewhat turned since the teams first met. The Tigers were in a similar boat back then, a team that had hoped to crash the BCS before being relegated to Nashville.
UK, however, was making its first bowl appearance in seven years, and a fired-up bunch of Cats jumped on the flat Tigers early and held on for a 28-20 win.
But Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney didn't sound overly concerned about his team being unmotivated.
The Tigers were thumped by arch-rival South Carolina in their regular-season finale preceding the ACC Championship Game, but Swinney's squad has shown the ability to get up off the mat, winning six straight games and the ACC Atlantic Division after a 2-3 start.
"Our guys have shown up and been motivated all year long," he said. "We've had to overcome difficult circumstances all season. We didn't get off to a great start and had some difficult losses, but I like how this team has persevered and gone to the next game. We've been able to refocus them all year. We didn't win the (ACC) Championship Game. We played hard, gave it our best shot and came up a little short. Now we move on. We're fortunate we had a good enough year to play in a bowl game. We don't spend a lot of time worrying about what happened."
Fourteen Clemson players remain from the original Music City Bowl matchup. Swinney was the Tigers' wide receivers coach back then.
"I really don't spend a lot of time thinking about the 2006 game," he said. "We're a different group of guys, different coaches, different circumstances."
Conversely, Swinney says Kentucky is a better, more well-rounded squad than the 2006 version.
"This is their fourth bowl in a row," he said. "Back then, they were in the middle of the process to get to where they are today."
Brooks is counting on his players manning up and taking care of business another time in Nashville.
"We've had spirited practices," he said. "Our guys have understood the challenge that's ahead of us. And we can set some positive streaks in Kentucky football, and I think that's very important. This group of seniors, when they came to Kentucky, it was not a popular thing. And they were criticized for it. The final validation can be not only going to four bowl games, but four bowl wins."