JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) -- When Dabo Swinney was named Clemson's interim coach in mid-October, the Tigers had lost three games, longtime head coach Tommy Bowden and just about every bit of confidence the program had coming into the season.
Thoughts of making a bowl game were nearly gone, too.
"Back on Oct. 13, we would have been happy to be playing in the Hormel Sardines Bowl," Swinney said. "We would have gone anywhere and we would have walked to get there."
The Tigers (7-5) rebounded from the turmoil that accompanied the coaching change, won four of their final five games, beat archrival South Carolina and earned their first January bowl game in five years.
About 900 miles west, Nebraska enjoyed a similar turnaround after finishing 5-7 last season, missing the postseason and firing coach Bill Callahan. The Cornhuskers (8-4) won five of six down the stretch under first-year coach Bo Pelini, beat rival Colorado and returned to New Year's Day for just the fourth time in 11 years.
Either Clemson or Nebraska will keep their momentum going into the offseason when they play in the Gator Bowl on Thursday.
"We want to go out on top just to further cement the foundation that we've been talking about building for the next couple of years," Nebraska quarterback Joe Ganz said. "A win against Clemson is probably the best thing for that."
Both programs had higher goals before the season. The Cornhuskers believed they could win the Big 12 North, but they didn't match up well against three of the conference's elite teams. They lost to Missouri (52-17), Texas Tech (37-31, OT) and Oklahoma (62-28).
Still, Big Red made big strides after suffering two losing seasons in the previous four years.
"We had a long way to go when we first got together," said Pelini, a defensive coordinator the previous six years at Nebraska (2003), Oklahoma (2004) and LSU (2005-07). "You try to institute a different type of culture, get everybody on the same page, develop trust, build relationships between the players and coaches, which I think is No. 1. That doesn't happen overnight.
"There was a lot of work to do. We've gotten better. We're not exactly where we want to be."
The Tigers could say the same thing. Clemson opened the season ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press' college football poll and was an unanimous pick to win the Atlantic Coast Conference.
But Alabama thumped the Tigers in the opener. Clemson bounced back to win three straight, but consecutive losses to Maryland and Wake Forest prompted Bowden to resign midway through his 10th season -- a move that surprised players, coaches and fans.
Swinney picked up the pieces.
"When we were sitting there at 3-3 and things weren't really going our way, I don't think any of us would ever believe we would be able to turn it around and make it to the Gator Bowl," quarterback Cullen Harper said. "We turned the season around. Now, we have an opportunity to finish strong. That's all you can ask for."
Although both teams might have hoped for a more prestigious bowl game before the season, neither could complain after starting out 3-3.
Jacksonville offered plenty, too.
Several Nebraska players and coaches played TPC Sawgrass, home of The Players Championship. Senior defensive end Zach Potter even hit his tee shot on the famed No. 17 island green to 10 feet.
Teammate Nate Swift, the team's leading receiver, saw the ocean for the first time. He only ventured in about knee deep, though.
"That was good enough for me," Swift said.
For many Clemson players, the trip was a homecoming. The Tigers have five players from Jacksonville, five more from neighboring cities and 19 total from the Sunshine State. Running back James Davis got a chance to eat dinner at C.J. Spiller's home in Lake Butler one night this week.
The Tigers, making their record-setting ninth appearance in the Gator Bowl, also have a mural of Jacksonville's popular downtown nightspot "The Landing" painted on a wall outside their locker room in Memorial Stadium.
"We like to call Clemson 'Duval County North," Swinney said. "We say that a lot up there. Jacksonville is a huge recruiting area for us. It's a great venue for us to be able to play in a state we recruit heavily from."
The week had some adversity, though -- something both teams have learned to handle.
The Cornhuskers had $14,000 worth of computer equipment stolen from a conference room in their hotel Sunday.
"My computer didn't get stolen," Pelini said. "It hasn't affected us. We'll be fine."
And the father of Bo Pelini and defensive coordinator Carl Pelini died last week in Ohio at age 85 after an extended illness. His sons would like to cap the team's turnaround with a tribute.
"It means a lot to me," Bo Pelini said. "I'll just leave it at that. But that's not my No. 1 motivation. My No. 1 motivation is these young men. I'm in this profession not for me, not for what it does for me personally or our staff or our families. I'm in it for what it does for these kids."
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.
Clemson won three straight under recently hired coach Dabo Swinney, who has begun to piece together his staff. The Tigers offense has been much more productive behind a healthy offensive line. The Huskers won five of their last six games in large part because of quarterback Joe Ganz, whose play was overshadowed by the Big 12's Heisman hopefuls. -- Heather Dinich