The Notre Dame Fighting Irish wound up playing five ACC teams and beat them all. Coincidentally, the Clemson Tigers beat all eight that they played. It’s safe to say that the Fighting Irish hoped to be in a position to play another one, but probably never expected it to be in a game of this magnitude. The Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic is part of this year’s College Football Playoff and Notre Dame and Clemson will meet at AT&T Stadium in Arlington to determine the first National Championship qualifier.
Clemson is a heavy 11-point favorite in this CFP Semifinal with a total of 55. Some shops are as high as 12 in the early going, but it would not be a surprise to see sharp money hit the Notre Dame side.
Notre Dame’s strength of schedule was talked about at length during the College Football Playoff discussion. The Committee has also stated that conference champions are preferred. Well, the Fighting Irish don’t have a conference, but it wasn’t their fault that what would be a top-10 schedule in a regular year went downhill so fast this year. The Committee (correctly) put the Fighting Irish in the final four and they’ll have a chance to actually play one of the top-five opponents that they expected to face during the regular season.
What wasn’t talked about a whole lot was how Clemson’s schedule lacked panache with the eye test as well. Texas A&M was a good, but not great team that actually should have beaten the Tigers at Kyle Field. South Carolina had a big offensive showing in the annual Palmetto State rivalry game, but Clemson scored 56 points and came out no worse for the wear. In all honesty, both of these teams have some questions to answer.
The fortunate thing for Notre Dame is that they can answer them with Ian Book at quarterback. Book posted a 19/6 TD/INT ratio and completed over 70 percent of his passes. We knew Notre Dame had a decent running attack and a solid defense, but the primary question coming into the season was Brandon Wimbush. He was not good against Michigan, Ball State, or Vanderbilt, and that was all she wrote. He got a cameo appearance in the blowout win over Florida State because Book was hurt, but it’s clear whose team this is.
Even with the change to Book, though, Notre Dame finished the regular season with 6.18 yards per play, which is a drop from last year’s output. The running game took a hit without Josh Adams and without Wimbush’s mobility, but the aerial attack was a lot more efficient. We’ll have to see if Notre Dame can keep Book upright and maybe even get that ground game going against this Clemson front, as Dexter Williams had 6.6 yards per carry.
The defensive side of the football is now in the spotlight. Notre Dame was expected to fade a much tougher schedule, but teams like Stanford, Navy, Florida State, and USC all took a nosedive. The Fighting Irish did not allow more than 27 points in a game this season, but haven’t faced a team as efficient as Clemson. The Tigers finished third in yards per play and led the country in yards per carry with 6.75. Clemson scored 46 rushing touchdowns this season.
Even with the weaker schedule, Notre Dame’s rush defense finished outside the top 30. It was still ND’s best showing against the run since 2012, but we’ll have to wait until December 29 to see if that was a byproduct of the schedule or of an improved unit. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea does seem to be something of a rising star in the coaching world, so it could be a little of both.
Speaking of rising stars, we came into the season not sure if Kelly Bryant or Trevor Lawrence would lead Clemson to this point. We were just pretty sure that Clemson would get to this point. It started with Bryant, but his transfer to Missouri tells you how it ended. Lawrence wound up with 326 of the 435 pass attempts for the Tigers and completed 65 percent of those with a 24/4 TD/INT ratio in the regular season. The reins of the offense are his for the biggest game of the year.
Lawrence played well, but the job isn’t all that tough with a running game as proficient as Clemson’s. Travis Etienne is going to cross the 1,500-yard mark, barring a disaster, and Lyn-J Dixon, who was the second-leading rusher, had 9.6 yards per carry on 56 attempts as a true freshman. For good measure, Adam Choice had 7.4. What made Clemson so deadly is that so many guys contributed and contributed with big plays.
That’s the scary part. Clemson has the best front four in the country and quite possibly the best defense in the country, but the offense went from 5.7 yards per play last year to well over seven yards per play this season. That makes Clemson virtually unbeatable with a defense like this. Clemson allowed just 2.4 yards per carry, which was nearly 0.3 yards per carry better than anyone else in the country. Overall, the defense allowed 4.08 yards per play. And Brent Venables has extra time to prep for this Notre Dame offense.
Dabo Swinney is a stud in bowl games. That won’t help Notre Dame’s cause, as Brian Kelly is not. Swinney may only be 7-5 straight up, but his list of conquests is significant. Swinney failed to cover in last year’s Sugar Bowl against Alabama, but has beaten Urban Meyer twice, Alabama in the 2016 CFP Championship, covered against Alabama in the 2015 CFP Championship, and comfortably beat Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl that season.
Cotton Bowl Free Pick: Clemson Tigers -11
Wait this one out if you like Clemson because it should come down. Clemson was top-three in offensive yards per play and tops in defensive yards per play allowed. Was the schedule great? No, it wasn’t, but Clemson was 48th per Sagarin and Notre Dame was 42nd, so we’re not talking about a big gap.
The biggest differences here are that Clemson has been there and done that and so has the coaching staff. Notre Dame’s coordinators are better than in the past, but Dabo Swinney is the best bowl coach in the country. I said it. Go ahead and @me (@SkatingTripods). He’s better than Saban. He’s better than Meyer. He’s the GOAT at this time of the year and that’s too much to overlook, especially when his team is the better one.