Notre Dame makes its College Football Playoff debut against a team that is no stranger to the new system.
Bowl: College Football Playoff: Cotton Bowl
Opponent: Clemson Tigers (13-0, ACC Champions)
Last game: Defeated Pitt, 42-10
Date: December 29, 2018
Location: Dallas, Texas (Cowboys Stadium)
Time/Channel: 4:00pm ET on ESPN
Top Storyline: A Different Kind of Experience
It’s no secret that Notre Dame has been under appreciated most of the season. They’ve defeated everyone they’ve played, and yet are still considered a pretender rather than contender by some.
This Notre Dame team isn’t really a young team like Washington or Michigan State a few years ago. All the leaders have been around a while, and being on a team where each home game is nationally televised by NBC, big games certainly aren’t a rarity.
But still, Notre Dame has never made the College Football Playoff. There’s been a New Years Six appearance, but that doesn’t compare to the Playoff.
Clemson, on the other hand? Been there, done that.
Clemson comes into the game with tons of experience. The defensive line is great, running back is solid, and the secondary isn’t exactly a weak point — even though it has caught some flack for giving up some big games to average passers.
And where there’s not experience, there’s pure talent in true freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
But all that depth and talent isn’t the only type of experience the Tigers have. This Clemson team is no stranger to success on the big stage.
Four consecutive Playoff appearances that include a National Championship in 2016. Last year, they lost to Alabama in the semifinal. In fact, Alabama is the only team to defeat Clemson in Playoff history.
Key offensive Notre Dame player: Quarterback Ian Book
Not to sound too dramatic, but the Notre Dame offense will only go as far as Ian Book takes it.
Clemson’s Defensive Line is well respected as one of the best in the nation (we’ll get to that) and as such, rushing yards may come at a premium. That’s why it’s so important that Book has a performance that looks closer to his effort against Stanford and less like the first half of the USC game.
Even in Book’s “worst” game against USC, he was 22/39 and threw for 352 yards with two touchdowns. Granted, he’s never faced a defense quite as good as Clemson, but how can you not feel confident with a quarterback like Book?
On the season, Book has completed 70.4 percent of his passes for 2468 yards in just 9 games. It’s not a secret that Book has been one of the best players on the Notre Dame offense, but he’ll need to be the best player on the field this afternoon.
Key offensive Clemson player: Quarterback Trevor Lawrence
Trevor Lawrence is a 6’5, 205 pound true freshman and is already one of the best quarterbacks in college football.
A five-star recruit, Lawrence beat out Kelly Bryant for the starting job. Bryant took Clemson to the College Football Playoff last season. Lawrence is better than that guy, which is a scary thought.
Lawrence has 2606 yards passing this season, along with 24 touchdowns. In 327 attempts, he’s thrown just four interceptions.
His best outing came in a rivalry game against South Carolina. He only threw one touchdown, but completed 75 percent of his passes for 393 yards.
This may be Lawrence’s biggest game yet, but given the potential he has combined with performances he’s had, don’t expect this young superstar to fold.
Key defensive Notre Dame player: Linebacker Te’Von Coney
There’s a saying that big time players make big time plays in big games. Every time Te’Von Coney steps on the field, he proves this to be true.
Coney has put up a season that’s just as good as last season. His 107 tackles lead the team by a wide margin. His 3.5 sacks are fourth on the team and his 9.5 tackles for loss are second.
His ability to lead by example and elevate the play of those around him (the same ability Drue Tranquill possesses) is certainly going to be displayed on the biggest stage.
Coney is one of those players that makes plays even if he’s not involved directly in a tackle or stop. He’s always all over the field causing some sort of disruption. Whether it’s dropping back into coverage or storming the line to pressure the opposing quarterback, Coney is sure to make his impact felt somewhere.
Key defensive Clemson player: Defensive End Clelin Ferrell
Really, it’s entire Clemson defensive line, but it starts with Ferrell.
With the news that Dexter Lawrence is out, there’s no doubt that the line takes a huge hit — but it’s not the end of the world.
Ferrell is the best defensive lineman at getting behind the offensive line, something that will obviously be needed to slow down Ian Book and the Irish offense. He’s got 10.5 sacks to go along with an impressive 17.5 tackles for loss.
He, Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins combined for 21.5 sacks and 41 tackles for loss. And that doesn’t even include Lawrence.
Ferrell is the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year and is another example of a big time player. He routinely makes a difference, including forcing a huge fumble in a two point win against Texas A&M.
It goes without saying that this is one of the biggest games Notre Dame has played in the last decade. Possibly even since the early 90s. But it’s business as usual for Clemson.
This has been hammered home by just about everyone for the last few weeks, but this game comes down to the battle of the lines. Not only Clemson’s loaded defensive line against a powerful Irish offensive line, but how Notre Dame can get to Trevor Lawrence.
One name that hasn’t been mentioned yet is running back Travis Etienne, who actually finished seventh in Heisman voting. Again, his success (or lack of) will depend a lot on who wins the battle in the trenches when Clemson has the football.
One thing I’m fairly certain of: this won’t be a shootout. That’s not to say the game ends 10-7 and turns out like the Cheez-It Bowl. But if 52–45 is more your speed, Alabama vs Oklahoma may be be game for you.
This may be one of those “how can you say both?” statements, but IF the game gets out of hand, it’ll be in Clemson’s favor. I don’t see a scenario, barring multiple Clemson injuries, that Notre Dame blows out the Tigers.
BUT…I do think the game will be close. Both teams are too good, and above that, too driven to let one team take off with the game.
Notre Dame has to play like the Cotton Bowl is their last game. If they play to the level they’ve shown they’re capable of, it won’t be their last.