The stakes are always high on Championship Saturday, but the ACC Championship Game between Clemson and Notre Dame might be the most meaningful matchup on tap this week. This is the second meeting in 2020 between these two teams, and after the Fighting Irish won in overtime the first time in South Bend, the Tigers want to get revenge. However, beating Notre Dame to enact revenge isn't the biggest storyline or goal on tap. Clemson needs a victory to clinch a trip to the CFB Playoff. Otherwise, coach Dabo Swinney's team is probably out for the four-team playoff with two losses.
Notre Dame ranked second for the third consecutive week in the playoff rankings but is a significant underdog (10.5 points) for Saturday's matchup. The Fighting Irish completed their regular-season slate on Dec. 5 with a win over Syracuse (45-21), giving the team a perfect 10-0 mark. Coach Brian Kelly's team had just two victories (Louisville and Clemson) decided by single digits. The win over the Tigers was arguably the biggest victory for any team during the 2020 college football season and helped to complete a perfect (and only) season in the ACC.
Clemson checked (No. 3) in one spot behind Notre Dame in this week's CFB Playoff Top 25. The 47-40 overtime loss to the Fighting Irish eliminated any room for error for coach Dabo Swinney's team. However, the Tigers rebounded the rest of the way by pounding Pitt 52-17 and defeating Virginia Tech 45-10. Of Clemson's nine wins, only one game was decided by fewer than 18 points. While many scenarios for the CFB Playoff are still a possibility, a two-loss team faces a tough path into the top four. The Tigers – barring massive chaos on Championship Saturday – cannot afford to lose on Saturday and still hope to get into the CFB Playoff.
Clemson holds a 3-2 series edge against Notre Dame. Four of the five all-time meetings between these two teams were decided by seven points or less. The Tigers are 6-1 in seven previous trips to the ACC title game.
ACC Championship Game: No. 3 Clemson vs. No. 2 Notre Dame
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 19 at 4 p.m. ET
Where: Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte, N.C.)
Spread: Clemson -10.5
When Clemson Has the Ball
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence was sidelined due to COVID-19 protocols for the first matchup in South Bend. Needless to say, the junior is one of college football's top players and his return should make an impact on this offense. Backup DJ Uiagalelei threw for 439 yards and two touchdowns in the first matchup, so there will be opportunities for Lawrence to attack through the air – even against one of the nation's top defenses. The junior quarterback is likely headed to the NFL after this season and a good performance here against the Fighting Irish would bolster his case to win the Heisman Trophy. Lawrence has passed for 2,431 yards and 20 touchdowns to only three picks this season and is connecting on nearly 70 percent of his throws (69.2 percent). One x-factor to watch: Lawrence (121 yards and six scores) is a better runner than Uiagalelei, which will give Notre Dame's defense something else to account for on Saturday.
Clemson's offense suffered a setback this preseason when Justyn Ross was ruled out for the season due to a neck injury. Amari Rodgers (61 catches) and Cornell Powell (41) have emerged as the top weapons on the outside, but the Tigers probably aren't as strong here as in recent years. Clemson was the only team to top more than 300 passing yards against Notre Dame this season, and this unit held North Carolina's high-powered passing game to 211 yards on Black Friday.
While Lawrence’s availability is a big deal for an offense averaging 46 points a game and 6.6 yards per play, Clemson lost the battle up front in the first matchup. The Tigers rushed for only 34 yards – the lowest mark for the program in a contest since posting 34 against NC State in 2011 – and the Fighting Irish recorded 10 tackles for a loss and sacked Uiagalelei twice. Running back Travis Etienne struggled to find running room in the first meeting, only mustering 28 yards over 18 carries. The senior has been held under 100 yards for six consecutive games. Clemson's offensive line has struggled at times to get a push on the ground, but the coaching staff has to find ways to deploy Etienne's all-around ability in space. Notre Dame's defense is holding teams to 99.7 rushing yards a contest this fall, and coordinator Clark Lea can once again lean on difference-makers like Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and safety Kyle Hamilton to keep Etienne in check.
For the season, Notre Dame is holding teams to just 17.1 points a game and 5.1 yards per snap. Can the Fighting Irish once again win the battle up front to get to Lawrence and keep Etienne in check? And can this group generate a couple of takeaways just like the first meeting?
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
Quarterback Ian Book and running back Kyren Williams are going to draw most of the attention going into Saturday's matchup. Those two players are key cogs in a group that's averaging 37.7 points a contest and 6.5 yards a snap. However, the strength of this offense is the five starters in the trenches. Notre Dame's offensive line ranks as the best in the ACC and easily near the top of college football. Robert Hainsey and Liam Eichenberg have graded out as the team's top performers, but guards Aaron Banks and Tommy Kraemer aren't far behind. Starting center Jarrett Patterson was lost for the year due to injury and backup Zeke Correll may not play. If Correll is indeed out for this game, junior Josh Lugg is expected to get the nod at center. This is a unit that has allowed just 17 sacks in 10 games and is clearing the way for rushers to average 5.4 yards per carry.
Winning the battle in the trenches carried Notre Dame to victory in the first meeting. Williams ran for 140 yards (including 65 on one carry) and three touchdowns, with Book chipping in 64. The senior quarterback was sacked only twice, and thanks to the strong play up front and under center, the Fighting Irish converted 10 of 19 third-down attempts. Getting Williams and fellow running backs Chris Tyree and C'Bo Flemister on track is once again crucial to winning on Saturday. Clemson's defense is giving up only 105.4 rushing yards a game and just 2.9 per carry. Notre Dame's 208 rushing yards in the first meeting were the most allowed by the Tigers in a single game all season. However, Clemson's defense was missing a handful of key contributors that night, including defensive tackle Tyler Davis and linebackers James Skalski and Mike Jones. Getting those three players back in the lineup is a huge boost to the rush defense as well as coordinator Brent Venables’ ability to deploy his full gameplan.
The underrated Book didn't blink in the first matchup against Clemson. He connected on 22 of 39 throws for 310 yards and a touchdown and rebounded after losing a fumble at the goal line. For the season, Book has passed for 2,382 yards and 15 touchdowns to just two picks. Book has been efficient, mistake-free, and opportunistic this fall. His ability to slide around in the pocket or move around to make throws on the run will be an x-factor on Saturday. The Fighting Irish may not have a dominant No. 1 receiver, but there are plenty of weapons on the outside. Javon McKinley (37 catches), Ben Skowronek (21), and tight ends Michael Mayer and Tommy Tremble give Book plenty of options.
Notre Dame was the only opponent to reach 30 points against Clemson this season. Can this unit find success again on the ground, with Book continuing to make clutch and timely plays through the air? Or will Venables get the best of Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees this time around?
Not only should this be the game of the day, the outcome is going to loom large in shaping the CFB Playoff. A Clemson victory would give the ACC two teams in the four-team playoff. However, if Notre Dame emerges with a win, the Tigers would likely be out, opening the door for Texas A&M and the Big 12 champion pending what happens on Saturday. Clemson has won its last three ACC title games by a combined score of 142-30. However, a blowout victory on Saturday would be surprising. If the Fighting Irish win again in the trenches, and Travis Etienne is held in check, coach Brian Kelly's squad can go 2-0 against the Tigers this year. However, the guess here is a healthier defense, along with the return of Trevor Lawrence, should help Dabo Swinney's team avenge their loss in South Bend and clinch a trip to the CFB Playoff.
Prediction: Clemson 34, Notre Dame 27
Podcast: Path to the Playoff + Championship Game Previews and Picks