Clemson and Notre Dame open the fifth edition of the College Football Playoff with a Saturday afternoon showdown in the Cotton Bowl. The Fighting Irish are making their first trip to the CFB Playoff, while this game marks the fourth consecutive year the Tigers appeared in the four-team system. The winner of this semifinal will clinch a trip to the national championship on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara.
After a 4-8 mark in 2016, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly promised changes to get the program back on track. And over the last two seasons, it’s clear Kelly pressed all of the right buttons (and then some), as the Fighting Irish are 22-3 in that span. Notre Dame opened its 2018 campaign with a huge non-conference victory over Michigan (24-17) and capped the first month of the season with a 38-17 win against Stanford. Kelly’s team continued to improve throughout 2018, especially after the insertion of Ian Book at quarterback, along with Dexter Williams’ return from suspension to anchor the ground game. The Fighting Irish capped the undefeated mark with wins over Pitt, Northwestern, Syracuse and USC in the second-half of the season to rank No. 3 in the final CFB Playoff rankings. Notre Dame’s defense thrived under first-year coordinator Clark Lea, as this unit did not allow more than 30 points in a game and held each of its last eight opponents to less than 25 points.
Trips to the CFB Playoff and competing for national championships have become the norm for Clemson under coach Dabo Swinney. The Tigers have been to the national championship game twice under Swinney’s watch, winning the 2016 matchup against Alabama in dramatic fashion. Clemson has won at least 12 games in each of the last four years and completed an undefeated record in the regular season for the first time since 2015.
Clemson holds a 2-1 series edge over Notre Dame. The Tigers won the last meeting 24-22 between these two teams in 2015. These programs have never met in a bowl game. This is Clemson’s first trip to the Cotton Bowl since 1940.
Cotton Bowl: Notre Dame (12-0) vs. Clemson (13-0)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 29 at 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Clemson -12.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Clemson’s Defensive Line Against Notre Dame’s Offense
Clemson has become an annual factory for standout talent in the trenches under coordinator Brent Venables. The Tigers entered 2018 with the nation’s best defensive line, and this unit has certainly lived up to the hype. Clemson finished third nationally in rush defense, holding teams to less than 100 rushing yards a game and just 2.4 yards per carry. This unit also helped the Tigers rank third nationally with 46 generated sacks and second with 121 tackles for a loss.
Senior tackle Christian Wilkins is the catalyst on the interior, while Clelin Ferrell is the team’s top pass rusher with 17 tackles for a loss and 10.5 sacks. However, this unit will be without a key player for Saturday’s showdown after tackle Dexter Lawrence was suspended due to a positive test for a banned substance. Although Lawrence will be missed, Venables has more than enough pieces in the trenches to keep the defense performing at a high level. In addition to Ferrell and Wilkins, Austin Bryant has registered 10.5 tackles for a loss, freshman Xavier Thomas has contributed 9.5, while Nyles Pinckney and Albert Huggins are a capable duo to fill in at tackle.
Considering Clemson’s talent and depth in the trenches, Notre Dame’s offensive line will certainly have its hands full up front. Despite losing standouts Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey to the NFL and guard Alex Bars due to injury in September, the Fighting Irish have allowed only 19 sacks in 2018. Additionally, this unit is clearing the way for rushers to average 4.6 yards a carry. Running back Dexter Williams paces the team with 941 yards and 12 touchdowns, while Tony Jones (392) and Jafar Armstrong (377) will contribute as reserves. With Lawrence suspended, Williams could find a little more room to run on the interior.
Notre Dame’s offense did not score more than 24 points in a single contest through its first three games of 2018. However, the decision to switch to Ian Book over Brandon Wimbush at quarterback paid big dividends for Kelly and coordinator Chip Long. Book’s overall accuracy and ability to threaten defenses on the intermediate routes opened up the offense. Notre Dame enters Saturday’s showdown averaging 6.2 yards a play and 33.8 points a game. Book has been lethal with accuracy (70.4 percent) and has tossed 19 touchdowns to 2,468 yards. Miles Boykin (54 catches), Chase Claypool (48), Chris Finke (47) and tight end Alize Mack (34) are Book’s top options in the passing game.
With depth, speed and talent across the board on Clemson’s defensive front, this will be the toughest challenge of the season for Notre Dame’s offense. How will Long choose to attack the Tigers? The performances by South Carolina and Texas A&M against Clemson’s defense might provide some clues. Both teams attempted at least 40 passes, which attacked a secondary that is a little vulnerable at times. Can the Fighting Irish get enough protection up front to allow Book to attack the field with short and intermediate throws? And also, will the offensive line provide enough blocking for Williams to break a couple of big plays?
2. Notre Dame’s Defense Versus Clemson’s Passing Game
Big plays are likely to define the battle between Notre Dame’s defense and Clemson’s offense. The Fighting Irish have allowed just five plays of 40 yards or more, while the Tigers have generated 30 snaps of 40-plus. Notre Dame is willing to bend a little on defense, but this unit is still holding teams to 4.5 yards a play and 17.3 points a contest. Lea’s group has also generated 31 sacks and ranks 58th nationally in third-down defense. The Fighting Irish have allowed just seven passing scores all season.
After Kelly Bryant opened the year as the Tigers’ No. 1 quarterback, coach Dabo Swinney handed the full-time reins to five-star freshman Trevor Lawrence prior to the Sept. 29 game against Syracuse. Lawrence capped a terrific freshman campaign by tossing 24 touchdowns to just four picks and connected on 65 percent of his throws. The freshman has a strong supporting cast at his disposal, including an athletic group of playmakers on the outside. Sophomore Tee Higgins leads the team with 52 receptions for 802 yards and 10 touchdowns, but Justyn Ross (20.6 ypc), Amari Rodgers (47 catches) and Hunter Renfrow (43) will see plenty of targets. Lawrence’s offensive line has allowed just 14 sacks, with tackle Mitch Hyatt among the nation’s best.
With All-Americans like tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney and cornerback Julian Love leading the way, Notre Dame’s defense has the pieces to give Clemson plenty of trouble at the point of attack and on the back end. However, can the Fighting Irish continue to limit the big plays and force the Tigers to drive the length of the field? If Notre Dame prevents big plays, forces the Tigers into field goals instead of touchdowns and generates a couple of turnovers, that’s a huge plus for Kelly’s group as it looks to pull off the upset.
3. Clemson RB Travis Etienne and Notre Dame RB Dexter Williams
The Cotton Bowl features a standout matchup of two of college football’s top running backs. But on paper, running room could be limited to these explosive playmakers. Which one will break out and alleviate some of the pressure on their quarterback?
Etienne is a threat to score every time he touches the ball, as the sophomore averaged a whopping 8.3 yards per rush on 176 attempts this season. Etienne rushed for 1,463 yards and 21 touchdowns and will test a Notre Dame defense giving up 133.5 yards a game on the ground. Similar to the passing game, can the Fighting Irish prevent Etienne from making big plays on the ground?
As mentioned above, Williams’ emergence over the final eight games was huge for Notre Dame’s ground attack. Despite missing four contests due to a suspension, he recorded eight carries of 30 or more yards. Only two opponents – Wake Forest and Pitt – have rushed for more than 150 yards against Clemson’s defense. Can Williams crack the 100-yard mark with a couple of big runs to keep Book in third-and-short and bring needed balance to the Notre Dame offense? Or will the Tigers stuff Williams, making the Fighting Irish a one-dimensional attack?
Notre Dame has been doubted all year and is a double-digit underdog headed into Saturday’s matchup. Needless to say, there’s no shortage of motivation out there for Kelly’s team. However, even with an inspired performance, the Fighting Irish are likely to come up short. Although Lawrence is sidelined, running the ball against Clemson’s front won’t be easy. Notre Dame’s best shot at a victory has to rest with prevention of big plays, winning the turnover battle, third downs and red zone defense, with Book throwing 40-45 times to take advantage of Clemson’s secondary. The Fighting Irish keep this one within a touchdown into the third quarter, but the Tigers pull away in the final 15 minutes to book a trip to the national championship.