The Notre Dame Fighting Irish open up November with a major battle on their hands in the form of the Clemson Tigers. Last season was something of a disappointment for the Tigers, even though they finished with a 10-3 mark. That’s because after six straight trips to the college football playoffs, four matchups in the title game along with two national championships, they ended their 2021 season playing in the Cheez-It Bowl.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney begins his 15th season at the school, compiling a 150-36 record and 11 consecutive campaigns of 10 wins or more. Getting back into championship contention seemingly only requires a consistent offense and avoiding key injuries on defense, something that the Tigers could accomplish.
Clemson Offense: Focus on the Quarterback
In 2020, the Irish defeated the Tigers, despite an impressive performance from reserve quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei. Yet, after taking over the role full-time last year, Uiagalelei ended the season with 10 interceptions and nine touchdown passes. and had problems connecting with receivers. If those struggles continue, Swinney may choose to insert top recruit Cade Klubnik.
Clemson’s running game will get back a trio of running backs that combined for 1,672 yards and 20 touchdowns last season. Will Shipley and Kobe Pace provided the bulk of that yardage, with Phil Mafah also serving as an option. One asset that Uiagalelei still possesses is his mobility after rushing for 308 yards and scoring four touchdowns last year.
Among the wideouts, Beauz Collins is a big target and the top returnee after grabbing 31 passes last season, with Joseph Ngata serving as a deep threat. Brannon Spector and a collection of raw talents will compete to be a part of the Tigers’ spread offense. One certainty is that the tight end position will be manned by Davis Allen, who combines blocking skills with dependable hands.
On the offensive line, Will Putnam will be the leader at center, with Jordan McFadden handling things at his left tackle slot. McFadden will be joined by Marcus Tate at guard, while the right side is expected to see Walker Parks at tackle and Dietrick Pennington at guard. Pass protection is one of this unit’s major calling cards.
Clemson Defense: Health is the All-Important Variable
Among a talented array of defenders up front, the inability last year to stay healthy was a key reason why the Tigers slipped from their former lofty status. Bryan Bresee has plenty of motivation to stay healthy at tackle since his name could be called early in next year’s NFL draft. His partner inside, Tyler Davis, can help shut down running attacks, and depth comes with players such as Ruke Orhorhoro and Tre Williams.
At one end, Myles Murphy had 14.5 stops behind the line last year, including eight sacks, team-high numbers in both categories. On the other side, Xavier Thomas is somewhat overshadowed but has the potential to make his own impact. Players like K.J. Henry and Justin Mascoll will bolster this area with needed depth.
Trenton Simpson leads the Clemson linebacking corps and was in enemy backfields almost as much as Murphy last year. He’ll likely stay on the weak side, with Jeremiah Trotter or hard-hitting LaVonta Bentley headed to the middle. The strong side will have Barrett Carter, who returned a fumble for a score last season.
A cause for concern might be the available talent in the secondary due to multiple departures. Two of those holes are at cornerback, with Sheridan Jones and Nate Wiggins the most likely duo to win the starting spots. Andrew Mukuba is back at strong safety after notching seven pass breakups last year, with Jalyn Phillips the top candidate at free safety.
Clemson Special Teams; Juggling Kicking Roles
All facets of the kicking game should be handled by B.T. Potter, who has been a consistent presence in the department in recent years. He’s got great range with his kicks and will be showing off his punting skills this year, giving the Tigers a dual weapon. Shipley and Pace be seen handling most of the kick returns, with reserve receiver Will Taylor a likely option on punt returns.
The Last Time Notre Dame Played Clemson
After having won their meeting during the 2020 regular season, the Irish’s efforts to capture the ACC title were crushed in a 34-10 loss to the Tigers. The chief reason for the drastic change was the return of Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who threw for 322 yards and two touchdowns. Eight of his passes connected with Amari Rodgers, who finished with 121 yards and scored once. The Irish defense was shredded for 541 yards during the contest.