Photo Credit: ND Football Archives
First off, I shouldn’t say no one. There are a few brave soldiers out there fighting the good fight (shoutout David Pollack), but it seems like the most popular opinion to have in college football right now is that Notre Dame doesn’t stand a chance against Clemson. Clemson has been amazing this season and certainly look like a team that would be worthy of holding the CFP trophy on January 7th, but so does Notre Dame.
Everyone keeps saying that Notre Dame has looked bad this year and that their 12-0 record makes them look better than they actually are, but that just isn’t true. Notre Dame’s struggles early on against Ball State and Vanderbilt were bad, but for anyone that has followed the Irish closely this season, they would know that a vast majority of these struggles can be credited to the fact that Brandon Wimbush was still their QB. In the nine games since the move from Wimbush to Book, there have only been two games where Notre Dame didn’t look like a championship contender: at home against Pitt and on the road against rival USC. In both of these games, Notre Dame’s defense showed up but the offense struggled mainly due to the ineffectiveness of the run game. In the other seven games with Ian Book under center, Notre Dame ripped apart their opponents. Many people claim that their schedule during this run didn’t have any tough matchups. Although this holds some truth due the disappointing seasons that USC, FSU, and Virginia Tech had, the Irish nine games under book were no cake walk.
Those nine teams finished with a combined 57-53 record (compared to Clemson’s opponents in their final nine games who finished with a 59-50 record). Those nine games had matchups against CFP ranked #20 Syracuse at a neutral site and #22 Northwestern on the road. Clemson- on the other hand- only had one game against a CFP top 25 opponent in their final nine games (against #20 Syracuse at home). It doesn’t make any sense that the same people who are saying Notre Dame had an easy schedule fail to point out that Clemson’s schedule was just as easy (if not easier) than Notre Dame’s.
In addition to this, it’s important to look at the results of the matchups between common opponents for the two teams. Notre Dame and Clemson have played four common opponents: Florida State, Wake Forest, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse. Both teams had similar results against FSU and WF which turned out to be blowouts. Pittsburgh, as stated earlier, made Notre Dame look vulnerable whereas Clemson blew them out. However, the opposite can be said about the two teams’ meetings against Syracuse: Notre Dame dominated Syracuse whereas Clemson scraped out a last-second win. Yes, Clemson was without their QB Trevor Lawrence for the second half of that game, but even in the first half Clemson struggled and ended up trailing 16-7 at halftime. Looking at the film of what Clemson did against Pittsburgh vs what Notre Dame did would definitely point you in the direction of Clemson winning this matchup, but looking at the film of these two teams against Syracuse should have you thinking twice about that.
In summary, both teams have had incredible seasons, but for some reason, everyone seems to jump to the conclusion that Clemson will run away with this one. These people should reconsider their predictions before they make themselves look foolish.
Breakdown of the Matchup:
Clemson’s Key: Defensive Line
Clemson’s defensive line has top NFL prospects across the board and should be the #1 thing on Brian Kelly’s mind leading up to the December 29th matchup. Notre Dame’s offensive line certainly hasn’t been what it was last year (especially after losing Alex Bars to an ACL injury), and they will need to have their best game of the season if the Irish want to make it to San Francisco. If Clemson’s defensive line can contain Dexter Williams and put pressure on Ian Book, it could be a long plane ride home for the Irish.
Notre Dame’s Key: Establishing the Run Game
Dexter Williams has been able to find running room in 6/8 games since his return from suspension, and in all 6 of these games, the Irish have dominated the game. In the other two (vs Pitt and @ USC), Notre Dame has looked mortal. The biggest key for Notre Dame in this game will be establishing the running game to open everything up for Ian Book. If the Irish can do this, there will be a lot of Notre Dame haters putting their phones on silent come December 29th.
Prediction: Notre Dame 38 Clemson 35
Notre Dame OC and play caller Chip Long is one of the best coordinators in college football and might be receiving head coaching calls soon. A month for him and Brian Kelly to watch film and find creative ways to exploit Clemson is dangerous. Dexter Williams will find room to run, Ian Book will hit Notre Dame’s giant pass catchers, and the defense will do enough to keep Notre Dame in the game. The Notre Dame offense will have its best game of the season and leave Dallas with a win off of a Justin Yoon game-winning field goal.