Death Valley is the epicenter of college football’s Week 5 slate, as Notre Dame travels to Clemson for a must-see non-conference matchup. The Fighting Irish enter Saturday night’s game at 4-0 and ranked No. 6 in the latest Associated Press poll, while the Tigers are 3-0 and ranked No. 12. Needless to say, this marquee matchup will have playoff implications for both teams and will have a huge impact on the top 25 rankings on Sunday.
There’s a potential wild card element in play on Saturday night, as Hurricane Joaquin could bring heavy rainfall to the area. Playing conditions could be an issue if the inclement weather hits Clemson, S.C. on Saturday night.
Related: Predictions for Every Game in Week 5
The path to an unbeaten record has been significantly different for both teams. Notre Dame was hit with a rash of injuries, including season-ending ailments to quarterback Malik Zaire and running back Tarean Folston. Personnel issues also hindered Clemson, as the Tigers returned just five starters from last year’s team. Additionally, standout receiver Mike Williams was lost for an indefinite period due to a neck injury suffered in the opener against Wofford. However, Clemson was able to quickly reload and was picked at ACC Media Day as the projected champion. Despite both teams suffering significant personnel setbacks, both teams are squarely in the mix to be a playoff team in 2015.
Notre Dame and Clemson have played only two previous matchups. The series is tied at one victory apiece, with the last meeting between the Tigers and Fighting Irish taking place in 1979.
Notre Dame at Clemson
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 3 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Clemson -1
Three Things to Watch
1. The Quarterbacks
Clemson’s Deshaun Watson has only eight starts under his belt, but the sophomore is already one of the nation’s top quarterbacks. Through three games in 2015, Watson has completed 58 of 78 passes for 641 yards and seven scores. While Watson is a known commodity and a proven star, there’s a different feeling on the Notre Dame sideline about its quarterback. The Fighting Irish lost starter Malik Zaire to an ankle injury in the second week of the season against Virginia, forcing unproven redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer into the starting lineup. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is no stranger to quarterback changes and adapting to injuries at the position, and Kizer has been steady through his first two starts. But Saturday night is a tough assignment for any quarterback to step into. Clemson is one of the best venues in college football, and Kizer will face the best defense of his career so far. Notre Dame doesn’t need Kizer to throw for 300 yards on Saturday night, but he has to take care of the ball and limit mistakes. For Watson, Clemson may ask him to carry more of the workload. It’s no secret quarterback play is crucial to winning every game, but the battle between a redshirt freshman making his third career start against a rising star will be an interesting storyline.
2. Battle in the Trenches
The biggest concern for Clemson in the preseason was its rebuilt offensive and defensive lines. So far, it’s been a mixed bag of success in the trenches. The Tigers have allowed six sacks, and quarterback Deshaun Watson faced heavy pressure in the win over Louisville on Sept. 17. The Fighting Irish’s front seven has been the strength of this defense in 2015, limiting opponents to 4.1 yards per carry and generating eight sacks. Tackle Sheldon Day is the headliner up front, while linebacker Jaylon Smith is one of – if not – the best in the nation at his position. It’s no secret what Notre Dame’s defense has to do on Saturday night. Disrupting the timing of Clemson’s offense starts up front. If Watson and the deep group of receivers have time to make plays, there’s opportunities downfield against a Fighting Irish secondary that has allowed six plays of 30 yards or more.
On the other side of the ball for Clemson, coordinator Brent Venables has managed to quickly restock the team’s defensive line. The Tigers have generated seven sacks and 28 tackles for a loss through three games. End Shaq Lawson is the unit’s top player (six tackles for a loss, two sacks in 2015), but the interior is also performing well with the emergence of true freshman Christian Wilkins (24 stops), along with junior Carlos Watkins (16 tackles). Clemson’s rush defense has also remained tough, limiting opponents to 2.9 yards per carry. However, the Tigers will face their toughest test of the season on Saturday night. Notre Dame’s offensive line is arguably one of the best in the nation, with left tackle Ronnie Stanley leading the way. Although Kizer has performed well in his limited action, it’s critical for the Fighting Irish to establish the line of scrimmage and allow running back C.J. Prosise to take some of the pressure off the redshirt freshman quarterback.
3. Notre Dame WR Will Fuller vs. Clemson CB Mackensie Alexander
Assuming the weather cooperates, Saturday’s matchup could feature one of the best one-on-one battles of the year between two likely All-American candidates. Notre Dame receiver Will Fuller has grabbed 22 catches for 454 yards and six scores this season, averaging a healthy 20.6 yards per catch. Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander is one of the best in the nation but has only two tackles and one pass breakup in 2015. However, that’s not his fault for the low totals on the stat sheet – opponents aren’t simply throwing to his side of the field. Fuller’s string of 100-yard games this season was snapped against UMass (only 57 yards on four catches), and there’s a good chance he’s blanketed by Alexander on Saturday night. Can Alexander limit Fuller’s production and force Kizer to target Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle? Or will Fuller win the one-on-one matchups and allow Kizer to connect on big plays downfield?
Both teams have been tested this year, but Saturday night’s game is each program’s toughest opponent so far in 2015. Will the injuries finally catch up to Notre Dame? Or is Clemson’s rebuilding effort still a work in progress? Of course, there’s the weather element to consider. If conditions are an issue, an edge has to go to the Fighting Irish with its offensive line and running back C.J. Prosise. Even if conditions aren’t an issue, the Tigers still have question marks about the play in the trenches against Notre Dame’s offensive and defensive lines. Clemson has the edge at quarterback, but the Fighting Irish’s defense and strength up front on offense will be the difference.