The Notre Dame Fighting Irish completed a perfect 10-0 regular season — including a 47-40 double-overtime win over then-No. 1 Clemson — and, after a disappointing 34-10 loss in a rematch with Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, have secured a berth in the College Football Playoff for the second time in three seasons. Despite the strong resume, the Irish enter facing the public perception of limping into the month of January with doubts surrounding their merit for making the playoff.
Both semifinal games feature plenty of intrigue with intriguing matchups across the board among the nation's top four teams. Here are five reasons why the Irish will not only come away with a win in the Rose Bowl but will go all the way and secure Notre Dame's first national championship since 1988.
5 Reasons Why Notre Dame Will Win the College Football Playoff
1. Ian Book
For Notre Dame to have any shot at a championship, its winningest quarterback in school history will undoubtedly be a key reason why. Book struggled against Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, his first loss since October 2019. He was held to 219 passing yards, failing to throw for a touchdown for just the third time this season and the first time since a 12-7 win over Louisville in mid-October.
Despite his poor performance against the Tigers, Book has demonstrated a tremendous amount of leadership over the course of his Irish career and an ability to rebound from losses. After each of his three previous losses — all of which came away from Notre Dame Stadium, as Book completed a perfect 15-0 record at home — he led Notre Dame to a win in the very next game, with two of the three victories coming by at least 15 points. With another opportunity — potentially two — to cement his legacy, expect Book to deliver and provide a final chapter for his storied career.
2. Notre Dame's offensive line
Of Notre Dame's 10 games this season, four have resulted in an Irish lineman being named ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week this season. Senior right tackle Robert Hainsey was the first to claim at least a share of the award for his performance in the 52-0 win over USF as the Irish put up 281 rushing yards and six touchdowns. Later in the season, in the 31-17 win over now-No. 13 North Carolina, graduate student left tackle Liam Eichenberg notched the second of his two selections after Notre Dame rushed for 201 yards and three touchdowns, the Irish's fifth consecutive game with three rushing touchdowns. In addition to his two ACC weekly honors, Eichenberg also has been named a semifinalist for the Outland Trophy, awarded to the nation's best interior lineman on offense or defense.
The Fighting Irish lead the ACC and rank eighth in FBS in time of possession, controlling the ball for 33:57 minutes of game time. On third down, a critical situation for sustaining drives, Notre Dame stands atop the ACC with a 49.3 percent conversion rate. The unit has been named a semifinalist for the Joe Moore Award — an annual honor bestowed upon the "toughest, most physical offensive line in the country" — for which the Irish also were tabbed as semifinalists in 2018 after winning the award in 2017. This unit has been one of the most — if not the most — consistent position groups for Notre Dame this season, and has been a key driver for the Irish's top-25 marks in rushing (217.6 ypg), total offense (455.2 ypg), and scoring (35.2 ppg).
3. Coordinators Clark Lea and Tommy Rees
Defensive coordinator Clark Lea — recently named Vanderbilt's new head coach — will remain with Notre Dame for the duration of the season, including the College Football Playoff. Manifesting his continued dedication to the Irish, Lea has remained such a constant presence with the team that sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton noted that he had to be reminded that Lea had even taken the Vanderbilt job. A pair of postseason wins — which would include a win over future SEC foe Alabama in the semifinal — would be a great opportunity to arrive in Nashville with waves of momentum, especially after a poor showing against Clemson.
On the other side of the ball, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees already has the experience of putting up points on the Tigers once this year, guiding the offense to 47 points in the November win over then-No. 1 Clemson. Even after posting just 10 points in the conference championship, Rees — as a former quarterback under Brian Kelly — has a keen familiarity not only with the offensive gameplan but also with Book as a fellow signal-caller to provide him the optimal opportunity to succeed, including in this situation with a bounce-back opportunity squarely within reach.
4. Run-stuffing pedigree
One key to Notre Dame's season-defining win over Clemson in November, as well as its win over a ranked North Carolina, was its ability to stop the run game. Clemson's Travis Etienne managed 18 carries for just 28 yards, while the Tar Heels totaled 87 yards on 30 carries. The Fighting Irish enter the postseason with a top-15 rushing defense, allowing just 110.5 yards per game on the ground.
Notre Dame making a run at a championship would require taking down top-seed Alabama, led on the ground by Najee Harris who has already surpassed 1,000 yards heading into the College Football Playoff. The Crimson Tide, though, haven't faced many defenses of the Irish's caliber. Alabama has gone up against more teams ranked in the bottom 30 of FBS in total defense — Ole Miss, LSU, Arkansas — than teams ranked in the top 50 in that category, which in this case are Texas A&M and Georgia. Not to take away from the talent of the Crimson Tide's offense, but by the time they take on Notre Dame, it will have been nearly three months since Alabama would have seen a defense as strong as Notre Dame's.
5. Experienced, veteran leadership
A graduate student and two-time team captain, Book is the unquestioned leader of the offense. As the winningest quarterback in school history, he has been the steady rock directing the offense throughout the season and his career, as he's led the Irish to both of their College Football Playoff appearances (2018, 2020). He's far from the only Notre Dame starter who is no stranger to the big stage, however. Among its most experienced starters — graduate student Liam Eichenberg, senior left guard Aaron Banks, junior center Jarrett Patterson (out for the season due to injury), graduate student right guard Tommy Kraemer and senior right tackle Robert Hainsey — Notre Dame's starting offensive line boasts 160 career starts, a top-five mark in FBS.
On defense, fellow graduate student and captain Daelin Hayes has made a name for himself both on and off the field. From his spot as an edge rusher along the defensive line, Hayes has notched six tackles for a loss with three sacks and two takeaways (one interception, one fumble recovered) in addition to being one of the team's most outspoken voices advocating for racial justice and social equality. Senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, often combining with Hayes to make plays defensively, paces the team in tackles for a loss (11) and sits tied with Hamilton for the team lead in total tackles (56). He also recovered a fumble in the win over Clemson and returned it for a touchdown, one of the key, momentum-shifting plays in the game.
Both Book and Hayes have commanded the respect of their respective units and of the team as a whole. They also have demonstrated the ability to inspire this year's Notre Dame team to realize that, amid all the chaos and bedlam surrounding the current state of affairs, the Irish can compete with the nation's best — as evidenced by their win over Clemson in November — and can bounce back from the loss in the ACC Championship Game to cap off the 2020 season by winning the national championship in Miami.
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— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.