4:00 EST, ABC – Line: Clemson -10.5, Over/Under: 61.5
On the eve of the unveiling of the College Football Playoff, two teams that figure to play prominent roles in the final rankings meet once again in a rematch of one of the most entertaining games of the season, this time with MAJOR postseason implications, as the (3) Clemson Tigers and (2) Notre Dame Fighting Irish face off in the ACC Championship Game from Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s safe to say that this one has been circled for weeks on the schedules littered throughout the Clemson (9-1, 8-1 in ACC) locker room, as the five-time reigning conference champions will be looking for payback; that epic 47-40 affair in South Bend didn’t just ruin a perfect season for the Tigers, it snapped the longest Regular Season winning streak in the country at a staggering THIRTY-NINE games. Of course, that loss comes with the caveat of star Quarterback, Trevor Lawrence (69.2%, 2,431 YDS, 9.7 Y/A, 20 TD, 3 INT, 174.9 RATE), missing the contest following a positive COVID-19 test, further fanning the flames of this matchup. Since the loss, the Junior has returned to the gridiron with his side looking as formidable as ever, winning their ensuing two outings by a combined score of 97-27. (Head Coach) Dabo Swinney knows that the margin for error is ZERO for his charges at this point, for a second loss to the Irish will almost certainly spell the end of their five-year run within the Playoff, but there are a few reasons to think that this rematch will feature a different outcome, with the most prominent being No. 16 himself.
Through the first six games of the season, Clemson remained one of the few constants in this insane 2020 that has seen the college football landscape absolutely ravaged by COVID-19, with nobody coming close to challenging them as they wore the distinction of No. One in the Polls with pride. The Tigers manhandled their opponents by an average of 34.7 points per game, with the aforementioned Lawrence playing a huge role in their efforts, completing 70.7% of his attempts for an average of 305.5 yards on a healthy 9.6 yards per attempt, with seventeen touchdowns in comparison to just two interceptions, while rushing for another four scores via the run to boot. And then the news broke that he turned up positive for the virus, forcing him out of action for the following two games, the first at home to Boston College and the latter on the road at Notre Dame. Swinney’s side immediately found themselves on upset alert against the Eagles, trailing 21-7 early in the Second Quarter, but managed to rally back en route to a 34-28 victory which featured twenty-two unanswered points in the Second Half. However, they would not be so fortunate the following week against the Irish, falling in thrilling fashion as the hosts ultimately took the game in double-overtime. In just his second career start, (Freshman) D.J. Uiagalelei (67.2%, 914 YDS, 7.9 Y/A, 5 TD, 0 INT, 147.7 RATE) kept the visitors in the affair throughout the night, completing 29-of-44 passes for 439 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for another score as well, but the Tigers were nothing short of one-dimensional, unable to gain any traction on the ground, rushing for a season-low thirty-four yards on thirty-three carries. This played no small role in having to settle for three field goals, as a number of drives bogged down prematurely due to a lack of balance. The visiting side also coughed up the football on three occasions, with the hosts returning a crucial fumble twenty-three yards to the house to take a ten-point lead late in the First Half. Following their first Regular Season defeat since 2017, it wouldn’t be long before Lawrence returned to action, which as we stated earlier has led to back-to-back victories, though the pandemic continued to influence their routine; their Nov. 21st date with Florida State was canceled due to fears over the virus, though Swinney has publicly stated that it was the Seminoles who chose to call off the contest. In a 52-17 drubbing of Pittsburgh, the projected No. One Pick in the 2021 NFL Draft certainly looked the part, completing 26-of-37 attempts for 403 yards and a pair of touchdowns. In this rematch with Notre Dame, Swinney will no doubt be lamenting their previous lack of success on the ground, which has ironically been the strength of their side this season; without (Receivers) Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, the former selected 33rd Overall in the 2020 NFL Draft and the latter missing all of this campaign following a back injury, the focus of the attack has shifted towards the Backfield, where Travis Etienne (148 CAR, 758 YDS, 5.1 Y/A, 12 TD) has had to carry the bulk of the load. While he hasn’t been nearly as explosive as a runner in 2020, the Senior Tailback became the ACC’s all-time leading rusher earlier in the year (4,796 YDS), while continuing to showcase his skills in the passing game, hauling in a career-high forty-one catches for 512 yards and two touchdowns. Even with Lawrence back in the proverbial saddle, Etienne will be the x-factor for today’s affair after amassing only twenty-yards on eighteen carries against the Irish’s formidable front seven.
When we last saw Clemson, they booked passage to their sixth consecutive ACC Championship Game on the strength of 45-10 victory at Virginia Tech. For a team looking to get back to enjoying some success on the ground, they had to be satisfied with their performance in Blacksburg, as they racked up a whopping 238 yards and four scores on thirty attempts. After the two sides traded blows throughout the First Half, the visitors put their collective foot on the gas following intermission, running off TWENTY-EIGHT consecutive points. Lawrence took it upon himself to get things started in the third period, rushing seven yards for his second score of the night to extend the lead to fourteen points, followed shortly thereafter by a 66-yard fumble return to the house courtesy of (Junior Cornerback) Derion Kendrick (13 TKL, 1 FR, 1 INT, 5 PD, 1 TD) to break the game wide open. With the Hokies selling out to stop the run, Lawrence then launched a 65-yard rocket to (Senior Receiver) Cornell Powell (41 REC, 684 YDS, 16.7 Y/R, 5 TD), while (Senior Tailback) Darien Rencher (23 CAR, 136 YDS, 5.9 Y/A, 1 TD) finished off the hosts with a 50-yard dash into the end zone. In the end, the Tigers racked up 433 total yards of Offense, with over half of that figure coming via the run, with five different players logging thirty-seven or more yards. Lawrence wasn’t great as a passer, completing 12-of-22 attempts for just 195 yards, a touchdown and an interception, but he factored into the ground onslaught with forty-one yards and a pair of scores on seven carries. Defensively, (Coordinator) Brent Venables must have been happy with his troops, who were extremely active in forcing a quartet of fumbles, recovering all but one, and bringing their total of takeaways to eight over the past two outings alone.
Meanwhile, today’s affair may not be an absolute must-win for Notre Dame (10-0, 9-0 in ACC), but a second victory over Clemson could prove to be absolutely SEISMIC in regards to the Playoff. Consider this potential alternate future for a moment; two victories over Top-3 opponents coupled with an unbeaten record may be enough to elevate the Fighting Irish above an undefeated Alabama (who face (6) Florida in the SEC Championship Game today) for the top seed in the Playoff, setting up a Semifinal with whomever the four seed may be, which given a second loss would likely be someone other than the Tigers. And let’s not forget the immense validation that another win over the reigning conference champions, this time with the aforementioned Lawrence on the field, would mean for a program that has been desperate to prove that they belong alongside the country’s elite. (Head Coach) Brian Kelly has done a masterful job of building his side into a physical, athletic group that can rival the Alabamas and Clemsons of the world. After years of criticism, they have the opportunity before them to silence their critics. ‘Well, they don’t play in a conference.” They’re undefeated in the ACC. “Well, they can’t beat the elite programs.” They triumphed over the top-ranked Tigers 47-40 back in early November. These may not be your father’s Golden Domers, but they sure as hell aren’t the outfit that they were during the previous decade.
2020 has been an absolute nightmare for many teams thus far, but you can’t argue that it’s been about as ideal for Notre Dame as one could imagine at this point. For the first (and likely only) time in the history of their football program, the Irish affiliated with a conference, joining the ACC for this season, which has gone as swimmingly as possible. Kelly’s charges have run roughshod over the league, including huge wins over (1) Clemson and later (25) North Carolina, en route to rising to No. Two in the current College Football Playoff Rankings. Now in his eleventh season in South Bend, Kelly has enjoyed his second undefeated Regular Season, while bringing his record with the program to a stellar 102-37 (.734), passing the venerable Lou Holtz for second on the all-time win list, and just three away from Knute Rockne for first place. Ironically, if the 59-year old were to lead them to what would be their first National Championship since 1988, he would join the the Hall of Famer at the top of the school’s pantheon. By and large, Notre Dame’s success this season has come in the trenches with the running game returning to prominence, while the Defensive Line has routinely wrecked havoc in opposing Backfields. After throwing the football much more than they have in recent years, the Offense has transitioned back to the ground, rushing for a robust 235.0 yards per game on 5.4 yards per carry, allowing them to dictate control of the game to their opponents, which they’ve done with ruthless efficiency. (Sophomore Tailback) Kyren Williams (180 CAR, 1,011 YDS, 5.6 Y/A, 12 TD) has been outstanding in his first season as the starter, rushing for 1,011 yards and a dozen touchdowns on 5.6 yards per carry, while also factoring into the passing game with twenty-four receptions for another 268 yards and a score. In those two particular meetings with the Tigers and Tar Heels, the Irish controlled long stretches of play by rushing for a combined 407 yards on 5.4 yards per attempt. Of course, this leads improved down and distance, putting the Offense in better position to keep the chains moving, while also affording the Defense the luxury of rest. (Defensive Coordinator) Clark Lea, who has since been named Vanderbilt’s new Head Coach, has overseen the evolution of a physically-imposing unit that has allowed just 17.1 points per game (12th Overall) on 314.5 total yards, including a meager 99.7 rushing yards on 3.3 yards per attempt. Prior to their Regular Season Finale against Syracuse, who rushed for 229 yards (a season-high against the Irish), they had relegated their previous six consecutive opponents below 100 yards on the ground, yielding an average of 72.3 yards on just 3.0 yards per carry. Furthermore, as we outlined earlier, they completely shut down Clemson’s run game, relinquishing a scant thirty-four yards on thirty-three carries, proving to be the high-water mark for Lea’s troops. However, we’d be remiss not to mention (Senior Quarterback) Ian Book (63.3%, 2,381 YDS, 8.3 Y/A, 15 TD, 2 INT, 149.1 RATE), who also reached a major milestone in becoming the winningest Quarterback in the storied history of the program, winning his thirtieth game as the starting signal-caller. The posterboy for Notre Dame’s ascendance relative to the elite programs over the past four years, Book has come a long way since becoming the starter back in 2018. This is the same kid that took it on the chin in that National Semifinal blowout loss to Clemson (30-3) two years ago, completing 17-of-34 passes for just 160 yards with an interception and six sacks, only to flip the script in that aforementioned 47-40 epic; Book was on fire against the Tigers, completing 22-of-39 passes for 310 yards and a touchdown, along with sixty-seven rushing yards on fourteen attempts, highlighted by the four-yard toss to send the game into overtime. Juxtaposed alongside Lawrence, the Senior is the clear underdog in this fixture, but then again, that is a familiar role that is finally serving him well.
When we last saw Notre Dame, they capped off an undefeated Regular Season with a 45-21 victory over Syracuse. In a game in which both teams enjoyed great success on the ground, rushing for a combined 512 yards and five touchdowns on the afternoon, but the Irish were the only one that proved that they could also move the football through the air; in his final outing in South Bend, Book went out in style throwing for 285 yards, three touchdowns and an interception on 24-of-37 passing, while scoring two more times with his legs to boot. The aforementioned Williams and (Freshman Tailback) Chris Tyree (67 CAR, 459 YDS, 6.9 Y/A, 3 TD) rushed for 110 and 109 yards respectively, while (Senior Receiver) Javon McKinley (37 REC, 660 YDS, 17.8 Y/R, 3 TD) hauling in seven receptions for 111 yards and all three of his Quarterback’s passing scores, including two within a wild 3:18 stretch at the end of the First Half in which the hosts broke the affair wide-open. Defensively, despite giving up so many rushing yards, Notre Dame did come away with four takeaways, forcing four fumbles and recovering three, while intercepting the Orange’s Rex Culpepper, who could muster just 185 yards on 18-of-29 passing. (Defensive Lineman) Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (16 TKL, 5.5 TFL, 2.5 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR) and (Linebacker) Jeremiah Awusu-Karamoah (49 TKL, 9 TFL, 1.5 SK, 3 FF, 2 FR, 1 INT, 3 PD) each forced and recovered a fumble, while (Edge-Rusher) Daelin Hayes (17 TKL, 6 TFL, 3.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR, 1 INT, 1 PD) logged the first interception of his career, saving it for Senior Day.