4:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Clemson -13, Over/Under: 56.5
The College Football Playoff begins today with the first of two Semifinals, as the No. Two Clemson Tigers battle the No. Three Notre Dame Fighting Irish from the sight of the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, for the right to play in next week’s National Championship Game. Indeed, Clemson (13-0, 10-0 in ACC) are no strangers to the Playoff, making their fourth consecutive appearance in the sport’s Final Four, with designs on advancing to their third National Final in four years. This season has been one that can be divided into two halves for the Tigers: before and after Dabo Swinney named Freshman Quarterback Trevor Lawrence the Starter. Five games into the campaign, and Swinney was unimpressed with the play of the incumbent Kelly Bryant, who had quarterbacked his side to last year’s Playoff, and up until the point of his demotion, an unblemished 4-0 record. However, there simply wasn’t enough production out of the Passing Game with Bryant under Center, with the Senior completing 66.0% of his Attempts for an average of 114.0 Yards per Game on 8.6 Yards per Attempt, with just Two Touchdowns and One Interception. His ousting clearly didn’t settle well with the Signal-Caller, who promptly transferred to Missouri despite Swinney’s disapproval. With that said, nobody will argue the appointment of Lawrence, who since ascending to the starting role has been everything he was expected to be.
The towering, 6-6 Freshman has completed 64.8% of his Attempts for 2,606 Yards on 8.0 Yards per Attempt, with Twenty-Four Touchdowns opposed to just Four Interceptions. Furthermore, the Offense as a whole has responded to his presence under Center, with the Tigers averaging a staggering 47.4 Points per Game on 541.0 Total Yards, including 268.1 Yards through the air and another 272.9 Yards on the ground. The production in the Run Game has been particularly noteworthy as Clemson has repeatedly bludgeoned the opposition in the trenches, where Travis Etienne and Co. have run wild throughout much of the campaign. In his Sophomore term, the explosive Tailback has taken his game to another level, nearly doubling his rushing total from a year ago (766 YDS in 2017) with 1,464 Yards on 8.3 Yards per Carry thus far, with a whopping Twenty-One Touchdowns to boot. However, he’s not the only weapon in this arsenal, for Swinney has three other Tailbacks that have accumulated at least 400 Rushing Yards, with Tavien Feaster (71 CAR, 409 YDS, 5.8 Y/C, 6 TD), Adam Choice (68 CAR, 506 YDS, 7.4 Y/C, 7 TD), and Lyn-J Dixon (56 CAR, 536 YDS, 9.6 Y/C, 5 TD) all making the most of their opportunities.
Of course, the story that has commanded the attention of us all has been the untimely suspensions of a number of Clemson players, none more so significant than mammoth Defensive Tackle Dexter Lawrence (36 TKL, 7.0 TFL, 1.5 SK, 1 FR, 1 INT, 3 PD). A huge component of the Tigers’ vaunted Defensive Line, Lawrence inexplicably tested for a banned substance (Osterine) last week, leaving a potentially large void in the trenches. Granted, there is a slight chance that he could be cleared to play provided a secondary sample exonerates the Junior of any wrong-doing. With that said, he’s out of action for the time being, and you can imagine how arguably the staunchest Defense in the country will react to losing a monster of a man standing at 6-4, 340 pounds. On the season, Clemson has allowed 13.7 Points per Game (2nd Overall) on 283.2 Total Yards, including 183.8 Yards against the Pass and another 99.5 Yards versus the Run. a prototypical “2-Gap” Run Stuffer, Lawrence routinely occupies blockers so that his teammates can make plays. Fellow Linemen Christian Wilkins (46 TKL, 12.5 TFL, 4.5 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR, 1 PD), Clelin Ferrell (47 TKL, 17.5 TFL, 10.5 SK, 2 FF, 1 TD, 1 PD), and Austin Bryant (36 TKL, 11.0 TFL, 6.5 SK) have wrecked havoc throughout the term, and they can all expect to hear them names called during the NFL Draft one day, though they no doubt owe a great deal to their suspended teammate. Notre Dame will in all likelihood probe the interior of the Defensive Line, testing their depth as they look to control the tempo of the game, leaving the rest of Clemson’s Defense in a position to make a stand.
Meanwhile, as Clemson dream of taking another shot at the defending Champs, Notre Dame (12-0, Independent) enter the College Football Playoff for the first time since it’s inception, as they look to advance to their first National Final since the embarrassment that was the 2013 BCS National Championship Game. That was indeed a forgettable day in Fighting Irish History, as Brian Kelly’s charges were absolutely THUMPED in a 14-42 defeat at the hands of Alabama, a matchup that wasn’t even that close. However, things have certainly changed for the better over the past five years, with Kelly going 22-3 over the past two seasons, instilling a tough, physical identity that has served them well of late, particularly when it comes to competing in close games. Out of their twelve victories, six of them were decided by ten points or less, four of which were decided by seven points or fewer. This is primarily due to their ability to control the tempo of the game, and above all else taking care of the football. Balance has been another key to their success, which is something that their run-heavy 2017 incarnation sorely lacked, and the key to achieving that was making a change under Center.
Not unlike their counterpart today, the Fighting Irish’s season turned for the better once Kelly made a significant change at Quarterback, sitting the incumbent Brandon Wimbush (52.9%, 719 YDS, 5.2 Y/A, 4 TD, 6 INT) in favor of Ian Book. Despite a perfect 3-0 record, Wimbush’s performance, particularly as a passer from the Pocket, left a lot to be desired, for after last year’s success, the book had been written on him; the Junior was an athletic playmaker who could get outside of the Pocket and punish defenders with his legs, but once confined to that space, simply couldn’t make the requisite reads and throws to be successful. Enter Book, who immediately started paying dividends for Kelly, leading an offensive surge that lasted well into the latter stages of the campaign. The Junior has completed 70.4% of his Passes for 2,468 Yards on 8.8 Yards per Attempt, with Nineteen Touchdowns in comparison to just Six Interceptions. And in the end, that’s been the major difference between the two Quarterbacks; Book has been able to stretch the field on a far more consistent basis than Wimbush had, all the while exhibiting far better decision-making. Furthermore, in three games with Wimbush as the Starter, Notre Dame had averaged just 23.3 Points per Game on 366.7 Total Yards, in comparison to the final nine games led by Book in which they averaged 37.2 Points per Game on 486.3 Total Yards. Case closed, folks.
While the Offense underwent major changes during the season, the Defense has been the major constant for Notre Dame in 2018. Thus far, they’ve relegated the opposition to an average of 17.2 Points per Game (10th Overall) on 331.5 Total Yards, including 198.0 Yards against the Pass and another 133.5 Yards versus the Run. Furthermore, they’ve logged Twenty Takeaways to go with Seventy-Three Tackles for Loss and Thirty-One Sacks. Junior Safety Jalen Elliott (63 TKL, 1.0 TFL, 0.5 SK, 1 FF, 4 INT, 6 PD) has been nothing short of a playmaker, with a team-high Four Interceptions, while fellow Junior Defensive Back Julian Love (61 TKL, 3.0 TFL, 1 FF, 3 FR, 1 TD, 1 INT, 15 PD) has routinely shut down opposing receivers with fifteen Passes Defended. While Clemson certainly has the more celebrated Defensive Line in today’s contest, Kelly’s shouldn’t be overlooked, with a trio of big fellas that create havoc in the trenches; Khalid Kareem (40 TKL, 11.0 TFL, 5.5 SK, 2 FF, 5 PD), Julian Okwara (36 TKL, 10.0 TFL, 5.5 SK, 1 PD), and Jerry Tillery (28 TKL, 8.5 TFL, 7.0 SK, 2 FF), while hybrid Safety/Linebacker Drue Tranquill (75 TKL, 9.0 FL, 3.5 SK, 1 FR, 3 PD) cleans things up as the Captain of the unit.