Notre Dame Football Playoff Primer: Cotton Bowl vs. Clemson

The College Football Playoffs have arrived. Notre Dame will take on Clemson at AT & T Stadium this Saturday afternoon. As most of the college football world has the Tigers moving past the Irish, this 2018 Notre Dame Football team will attempt to flip the script. The Fighting Irish have often come up just short in monumental games under Brian Kelly. Can this year’s team beat the Tigers and advance to the National Championship? We’ll find out this Saturday.

Essential Game Info:

  • Game Time: December 29th at 4:00 p.m. ET on ESPN
  • Location: AT & T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
  • Matchup: Notre Dame is 1-2 all-time against the Clemson Tigers (Last Meeting 2015; Clemson won 24-22)
  • Current Odds: Clemson -13.0

Clemson Details:

  • Conference: ACC (Atlantic Division)
  • Head Coach: Dabo Swinney
  • 2018 Record: 13-0
  • 2017 Record: 12-2

Clemson Storylines

Dexter Lawrence suspended after failed drug test. Lawrence along with backup offensive lineman Zach Giella and tight end Braden Galloway, tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. There is a good chance these players won’t play in the Cotton Bowl, but nothing is certain. Expect the coaching staff for Notre Dame to prepare for Dexter Lawrence and see how the results unfold.

If Lawrence isn’t available, that would benefit Notre Dame in this matchup. He is one of the best defensive linemen in the entire country and is expected to be a first round pick. However, Clemson is still loaded with talent across the board and has formidable backups. But Lawrence’s absence will hurt the Tigers nevertheless.

Clemson’s stockpile of talent. The Tigers have a roster that is loaded with NFL talent, the main reason they’re a 13-point favorite over the Irish. Even without Lawrence, Clemson has Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins on the defensive line. Ferrell leads the team in sacks with 10.5 and has 47 tackles. Wilkins has 5 sacks on the year with 46 tackles. Both are projected in the first or second round of the 2019 NFL Draft.

Travis Etienne leads the rushing attack as one of the best running backs in the entire country. Etienne has 176 attempts for 1,463 yards, 8.3 yards per carry, and 21 rushing touchdowns. When Trevor Lawrence was injured, and Kelly Bryant transferred, Etienne almost single handedly won the Syracuse game with 203 yards on the ground.

Conversely, Tee Higgins leads the Tigers in receiving. Higgins has 52 receptions for 802 yards and 10 receiving touchdowns. It’s clear to say he is Trevor Lawrence’s favorite target.

True-Freshman Trevor Lawrence has been sensational. On the season, Lawrence is 212 for 326 (65%) with 24 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. He will be at the top of the list for the Heisman Trophy next season. On the ground Trevor Lawrence has 47 rushes for 144 yards (3.1 yards per carry). Yes, he is more of a pocket passer, but does present the ability to scramble when the pocket breaks down, like Ian Book.

Last year Clemson lost to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl 24-6. Since then the focus for Dabo Swinney has been the development of the passing game and specifically Trevor Lawrence. He won the job over Kelly Bryant because of his passing ability, which helps the Tigers against playoff competition. Fans will find out this Saturday on whether that decision paid off.

Notre Dame Storylines

Ian Book, the key to an Irish victory. The most underrated quarterback heading into the College Football Playoffs is Ian Book. Kyler Murray won the Heisman, Tua Tagovailoa placed second, and Trevor Lawrence is the best freshman quarterback in the country. Book will have the most to prove to the country on the biggest stage in college football.

Heading into the Cotton Bowl, Ian Book is 197 for 280 (70.4%) with 19 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. On the ground Book has 78 attempts for 250 yards (3.2 yards per carry) and 4 rushing touchdowns. The key this Saturday will be Book’s ability to get the ball out quickly and run the football. Throughout the year the running game has been more focused on Dexter Williams, but to win this game Book will have to lower his shoulder a few times to put the Irish over the top, as he did against the USC Trojans.

Notre Dame Offensive line faces enormous challenge. Even without Dexter Lawrence, the Clemson defensive line will present the biggest challenge for Notre Dame this weekend. The Tigers have one of the best defensive lines in the history of college football. Luckily for Notre Dame, the offensive line has been a staple of the Brian Kelly era.

The Irish are still without Alex Bars, but I believe they can hold their own. As I mentioned earlier, getting the ball out will be huge for the Irish. Receivers must get open and Ian Book will have to run to create plays throughout the matchup. If Notre Dame wins this game, the whole country will be introduced to how good Ian Book really has become.

Can Irish Defense stop Clemson’s high-powered Offense? Notre Dame has one of the best defenses in the entire country. From the defensive line, to the linebackers, and secondary, this 2018 Notre Dame Defense is well-rounded. Not only is this defense loaded with talent, they have an extremely high football iq and leadership. I believe this defense can slow down the Clemson Tigers, but they must get a pass-rush on Trevor Lawrence.

Lawrence hasn’t made many mistakes all season. If the Irish can force a turnover or two, that will help them win this playoff matchup.

Head to Head Matchups

Notre Dame Offense vs. Clemson Defense: Early in the season Notre Dame struggled to score points. But with the additions of Ian Book and Dexter Williams, the Irish Offense has been dynamic. Not only is Ian Book one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the country, he is also an underrated running quarterback.

Clemson has a defense filled with elite talent. The Tigers have gotten pressure on every quarterback they have faced. This battle will be won in the trenches. The Irish have the weapons to score on Clemson, but with the talent and success over the last several seasons, I’ll give the advantage to Clemson.

Advantage Clemson

Clemson Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense: The Clemson Offense hasn’t missed a beat with the departure of Kelly Bryant. Each game Trevor Lawrence seems to be getting better and better, with only 4 interceptions as a true-freshman. He will face his biggest test as a freshman against the Irish Defense.

Even when Notre Dame’s Offense struggled early in the season, the Irish Defense helped them win games. The Irish ability to force turnovers and get pressure on the quarterback has been constant throughout the season. Both Clemson’s Offense and Notre Dame’s Defense are loaded with talent, I give this matchup a tie.


Special Teams: If the Irish want to win the Cotton Bowl, they can’t afford mistakes on special teams. Kick returns allowed Michigan and Pittsburgh to almost upset Notre Dame. Tyler Newsome needs to be on his A game for this playoff matchup. Justin Yoon has had a great career in South Bend and is 16 for 20 this season.

Clemson’s kicker, Greg Huegel, is 9 of 13 on the season. He has attempted 68 extra points and has made all 68 of them; a testament to just how many touchdowns the Irish have scored this season.

With teams as talented as Notre Dame and Clemson, the kickers could be the difference in this matchup. I don’t see a distinct advantage for either team.


My Prediction:

After the historic 12-0 season, the Fighting Irish are in the playoffs for the first time in program history. While 2012 was a great experience for head coach Brian Kelly, 2018 is the year of redemption and proving skeptics wrong.

There is a reason Clemson is favored by 13 points. Since Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers beat the Irish back in 2015, they have dominated college football. The 13-0 team this season is no different. The Tigers are loaded with NFL talent and a bright young quarterback that looks primed for a first round pick in a few years.

Brian Kelly will face the biggest challenge of his coaching career, but if there ever was a Notre Dame team under Kelly that is ready, it’s this 2018 Irish squad. I believe the Irish have the balance on offense and defense with great leadership. If Notre Dame is going to win this game, Ian Book will have to be a true mobile quarterback. He’ll have to create plays with his feet and produce first downs.

On defense, the Irish will have to get a pass rush on Lawrence and hopefully create a turnover or two. The last time I picked Notre Dame to lose was the Citrus Bowl last year, and they proved me wrong. Now the Irish do have less margin for error than Clemson, I’ll admit that. But the Irish are due for a break through win and I think all the criticism they’ve received the past month will be the difference. I have the Irish winning by 3 points, with a Justin Yoon field goal as the difference in the game.

 Prediction: Notre Dame 27 Clemson 24

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  1. It has been well over a month since ND last played a game, so it is sort of like a first game of a season. Back in September, ND quickly went up 14-0 on Michigan. Clemson is a much stronger and faster team than Michigan. Notre Dame will have to win the field position game and the turnover battle to stand a chance. I feel they will come up short against Clemson.

    Clemson 24
    Notre Dame 13

  2. We have one of the best tackling defenses I’ve ever seen in college football. That’s one of the reasons we are in the playoffs and undefeated. Our defense will hold up, Jack, just like it did all game long on third and short and fourth and short in the Citrus Bowl.

    BGC ’77 ’82

  3. I hope Michael is right. You listen to all the talking heads and they already have Alabama-Clemson in ink for the NC game (not even pencil–they feel ND has no shot). And yes, when you look on paper with just stats and no emotion, I can understand that. A computer probably would pick Clemson to win the game based on all the data.

    But one thing they can’t predict is emotion. This ND team is much more balanced on defense-offense than in 2012. They complement each other and play as a team unit, with each side helping the other when necessary (either by making a score, or making a stop). But in addition to that the Irish need to have a bit of attitude. For the last month they’ve been told they don’t have a chance, and even that a 2 loss team is better then they are. They need to be angry…but disciplined too. Tell all the experts to shove it up their….well you know, by winning the game.

    And on the Clemson side, will they be overlooking ND by buying into the hype? Will they be so focused on an Alabama rematch they forget ND? Now, I’m sure the coaches by and large wouldn’t make that mistake. But the players are all basically college kids. Will they be overconfident based on hearing that an Alabama rematch is all but assured? Certainly the Irish can’t count on that, but they need to take advantage of any mistakes Clemson makes as a result of any of that, or any mistakes period.

    Go Irish

  4. Thanks Jack, we’ll pin that right up for all to see. You may be right on one thing. Wimbush will be leading Irish in Victory formation☘️

  5. I like your confidence! Wish I w felt the same. Hope I’m wrong but I see Clemson winning 38-3. I think you’re going to see Wimbush play after halftime on. Book will throw 3 picks and our defense won’t hold up to that.

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