WHAT WE ARE HEARING: ACC CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW & PREDICTION FOR NO.3 CLEMSON vs. NO.2 NOTRE DAME
- 2020-12-18 21:15:02
Welcome to the ACC Championship edition of What We Are Hearing!
Well, it all comes down to this. It’s not only the Tigers’ sixth straight ACC Championship Game. It’s the biggest game in the 67-year history of the ACC! All of the eyes on the nation will be fixed on Charlotte for an epic ACC rematch of the double-overtime thriller that occurred in South Bend about 6 weeks ago. It’s just the fifth rematch of top-4 teams in college football history, and what’s even crazier is that these two teams could conceivably meet for a third time in the College Football Playoff! The Tigers are used to the pressure of needing to win the ACC Championship in order to make the playoff. However, this time many are saying that Notre Dame will make the playoff with a loss to Clemson, and even the Tigers could still make the playoff with another close loss. Of course, no 2-loss team has ever made the CFP, but there’s a first time for everything—especially in 2020—and Clemson would certainly be the most unique and deserving of all the 2-loss teams in the past. The Tigers’ two losses would both be close losses to a top-4 team, and the Tigers were obviously missing several key players in the first loss. I asked Rece Davis to address that very scenario today on our GameDay Zoom call, and you can view his response, as well as his other thoughts about Saturday’s showdown, HERE. Having said all that, the Tigers aren’t thinking about sneaking into the playoff as a 2-loss team. They are out for revenge and want to win their way in, as they have the past five years!
I also spoke to Kirk Herbstreit today about the Heisman race and the fact that most have Trevor Lawrence second or third on their list, even though everyone continues to unanimously say that Trevor is the best player in the country. You can view Kirk’s response to that, as well as his other thoughts about the big game, HERE. Kirk will be calling the game, of course, with Chris Fowler, and ESPN College GameDay will broadcast from Charlotte on Saturday morning. It will be their 400th broadcast, and it’s fitting that it would feature two top-4 teams involving the ACC and Notre Dame, as their very first show in 1993 was in South Bend for No.1 FSU vs. No.2 Notre Dame! Incidentally, this is the fourth time this season that the Tigers have been featured on GameDay, the most of any team. It will be the Tigers’ 19th time being featured on the program since 2015—beginning with the epic Hurricane game against Notre Dame—which is the most of any school over that time period. It will be their 27th all-time appearance, and they have a 17-9 record, winning 13 of their last 15.
Without further ado, let’s get on with the rematch!
This is the 125th season of Clemson Football….The Tigers look to win at least 10 games for the 10th straight year under Dabo Swinney, joining Alabama and Florida State as the only programs ever to do so….Clemson is the only program to have won 5 consecutive outright ACC titles and the only program in the nation to win 5 consecutive conference championship games…. At 77-6, Clemson has the best record in the nation since 2015; 3 wins better than Alabama and 12 wins better than Ohio State. Clemson is 3 wins behind Alabama for the most wins since 2011….Clemson has the most wins versus Power Five opponents since 2013; 10 more than Ohio State and 7 more than Alabama….Dabo now has the nation’s best active win percentage at .811. Nick Saban’s is .792. Dabo also holds the best all-time win percentage in ACC games at .830. Bobby Bowden’s was .813. Dabo’s overall .811 win percentage is 7th all-time among head coaches that coached at least 150 games. Urban Meyer’s .854 win percentage is atop that list, followed by Switzer, Osborne, Yost, Neyland and Wilkinson….Only 6 times has a team won 12 or more games in a season against Power Five opponents. Clemson, FSU and LSU are the only programs to have done it, and 4 of the 6 times were by Clemson, which remains the only program ever to win 13 games against Power Five opponents in one season, accomplished in 2018. The Tigers could have won 12 games against Power Five opponents this season if not for FSU using COVID to cancel its game with Clemson or the SEC disallowing ACC rivalry games this season…..Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban are the only head coaches in history to reach No.1 in the AP Poll in 6 consecutive seasons….Clemson has played in the 14th most games (22) as AP No.1….Dabo is 17th all-time for most games (21) coached as AP No.1, passing Jim Tressel, Steve Spurrier and Ara Parseghian. He is one game behind Urban Meyer and Lou Holtz for a tie at 13th on the list….Clemson and Alabama are tied for the most consecutive weeks in the AP Top 10 at 91 weeks, the third-longest streak all-time. Florida has the next-longest active streak at just 20 weeks….Clemson has been ranked in the AP Top 5 for 54 consecutive weeks, by far the longest active streak and third-longest streak all-time. The next-longest active streak is Alabama at 15 weeks. Ohio State had 14 consecutive weeks before their exclusion due to the Big Ten’s season postponement. If Clemson remains in the Top 5 all season, it will pass Miami for the second-longest streak all-time. If the Tigers remain in the Top 5 from now until the ACC Championship next season, they will pass Alabama for the longest such streak all-time….Clemson’s run of 5 straight top-5 finishes is tied for the sixth-longest streak all-time. One more, and the Tigers will tie Oklahoma; two more and they will tie three other schools for the second-longest streak. FSU has the record at 14 straight top-5 finishes under Bobby Bowden….If Clemson finishes in the top 2 of the AP Poll this season, it will join Miami as the only programs to finish in the top 2 in 5 of 6 seasons…..Clemson and Alabama are tied for the most consecutive 12-win seasons (5) since Penn in 1892. One more would move Clemson ahead of Alabama, which won 11 games last season….Clemson has won 28 straight home games dating back to 2016, the longest active streak in the nation. Notre Dame has the second-longest active streak at 24, and its all-time record is 28 straight home wins, the same as the Tigers’ current streak. Only 9 fifth-year seniors on the 120-man Clemson roster have experienced a loss in Death Valley, and on Saturday, the senior class became the first in Clemson history to never lose a game at home. The Tigers are an FBS-best 46-1 at home since 2014….Before losing at Notre Dame a month ago, Clemson had won 39 straight non-bowl games, passing Nebraska and tying Miami for second-most all-time. Oklahoma holds the record at 45….Clemson had won 28 straight games against ACC opponents, tying FSU for the second-most all-time. FSU also holds the record at 29 straight, and the double-overtime loss at one-time ACC member Notre Dame kept Clemson from tying FSU for the record….Clemson had won 50 straight Saturday games before the Notre Dame loss, the longest such streak of all time…..If Clemson makes the College Football Playoff for a sixth consecutive year, it will be the first program ever to do so, and Dabo Swinney will join basketball legend John Wooden as the only coaches in any sport to make a Final Four playoff 6 years in a row….In his last game, the 5th player in ACC history with 100 career touchdowns accounted for, joining Deshaun Watson, Tajh Boyd, Lamar Jackson and Phillip Rivers….On Senior Day, Trevor Lawrence reached 10,000 career all-purpose yards, passing Charlie Whitehurst for 3rd in Clemson history behind Tajh Boyd and Deshaun Watson…..Clemson leads the all-time series with Notre Dame 3-2, winning 3 straight before last month’s double-overtime thriller….Danny Ford is the second-youngest coach to have beaten Notre Dame in South Bend, back in 1979. He was just 31 years old. The youngest was Jack Chevigny, whose Texas team beat the Irish 7-6 in 1934. Chevigny was so close to the Notre Dame legend Knute Rockne that he beat that he was a pallbearer at Rockne’s funeral….Dabo Swinney was 7-4 against top-5 teams before the double-overtime loss at Notre Dame. Conversely, Brian Kellly was 0-7, including the 2018 Cotton Bowl loss to Clemson….Trevor Lawrence and Notre Dame QB Ian Book each became the winningest quarterback in program history in his last game. Lawrence is now 33-1 as a starter, passing Watson, Boyd and Williams, who all had 32 wins. Book won his 30th game as starter in Notre Dame’s last game, also passing 3 quarterbacks with 32 wins: Quinn, Powlus and Clements….
NOTRE DAME SYNOPSIS
The Irish, of course, are 10-0 and boast the nation’s longest active win streak at 16 in a row. They might have the best run defense in the nation, judging by the way they shut down North Carolina for the last 3 quarters a few weeks ago. They also held the Tigers to 1.4 yards per rush in the first meeting. Whether Notre Dame beat a half-strength Clemson team in double-overtime or not, the Irish have a swagger and confidence now that I don’t think they’ve had since the Lou Holtz era, when they won their last national title in 1988. They’ve had good seasons between now and then, including a 2018 playoff run and 2012 BCS run, but they were blown out in both cases and suffered from a major disparity in speed and talent versus Clemson and Alabama. That may not be the case anymore. The Irish are both fast and physical, and, most importantly, they have a proven winner at the quarterback position.
Offensively, of course, Notre Dame is led by 6’0, 206-pound senior Ian Book, who started against the Tigers in the 2018 Cotton Bowl. Book has completed 63.3% of his passes for 2,382 yards and 15 touchdowns with just 2 interceptions. He is a savvy veteran, who is particularly accurate on intermediate routes and knows how to make things happen with his legs. Book is not as fast or athletic as a D’Eriq King, but he is just as elusive and very dangerous improvisationally, as we saw in South Bend. He can either run for a first down or extend plays to find open receivers, which he did successfully all night against the Tigers last month. Book has 465 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry net of his 17 sacks. The Tigers must have someone spying Book at all times—particularly in the red zone and when they are in man coverage. Book is 2nd in Notre Dame history for rushing yards by a quarterback, behind only Tony Rice, the South Carolina native that led the Irish to their 1988 national title.
The Irish have a trio of running backs, led by 5’9, 195-pound redshirt freshman Kyren Williams (#23). He has rushed for 1,011 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. He posted his first career hat trick in the first meeting with the Tigers, scoring a pair of touchdowns in overtime to give him 3 for the game. 5’9, 179-pound freshman Chris Tyree (#25) and 5’11, 201-pound junior C’Bo Flemister (#20) have about half the carries of Williams but have been productive. Tyree scored on a 94-yard run against Syracuse in their last game and finished with 188 all-purpose yards. He averages 6.9 yards per carry with 3 touchdowns, and Flemister averages 5.4 yards per carry with 5 TD’s. Williams averages a couple receptions per game, 24 on the season for 268 yards and a touchdown.
At receiver, the Irish are led by Javon McKinley (#88), who is Ian Book's biggest down field weapon. The 6’2, 215-pound senior has 37 catches for 660 yards to lead all receivers and has really come on in the second half of the season, scoring all 3 of his touchdowns in the last 5 weeks. He had 5 catches for 102 yards in the first meeting with the Tigers, including Notre Dame's longest completion of 45 yards. 5’11, 202-pound senior slot receiver Avery Davis (#3) has 21 catches for 292 yards with 2 touchdowns and is a speedster with sub-4.4 speed. On the outside is 6’3, 224-pound senior Ben Skowronek (#11), who has 21 catches for 344 yards and leads the team with 5 touchdowns. Watch out for him in the red zone! The Irish have a pair of talented tight ends, who make up a large part of their passing attack. 6’5, 235-pound freshman Michael Mayer (#87), who they call "Baby Gronk," is 2nd on the team in receptions with 30 for 337 yards and 2 touchdowns. 6’4, 248-pound junior Tommy Tremble (#24) has 17 catches for 177 yards. He has yet to score this season, but he had a couple big plays against the Tigers in the first meeting and scored 4 touchdowns in 2019.
Along with Book, the biggest strength of Notre Dame’s offense is its massive offensive line, which is one of the most experienced in the nation and will certainly be a finalist for the Joe Moore Award. They had 142 combined starts in the first meeting with the Tigers. However, they have since taken a hit when starting center Jarret Patterson suffered a season-ending injury against Boston College. Notre Dame will start either junior Josh Lugg (#75) or freshman Zeke Correll (#52) at center on Saturday. Lugg was previously the backup right tackle and has had issues with his snaps. Correll started the North Carolina game at center but left the game injured. Apparently, he will be available for this game, but the starting center remains a question. Correll has a bright future, but it's rare to start a freshman at center in a game of this magnitude and rarer still for a team like Notre Dame, which previously had one of the most experienced offensive lines in the nation. This development could be a game-changer! In addition, starting right guard Tommy Kraemer had an emergency appendectomy a few weeks ago and missed the UNC game. He played some on Senior Day against Syracuse and was thought to be okay, but he is not listed on the Notre Dame depth chart for Saturday. With the Irish potentially missing two veteran starters on that offensive line that gave the Tigers fits in South Bend, and Clemson getting back Tyler Davis and James Skalski in the middle, we could see a significant shift in the battle for supremacy at the line of scrimmage. Notre Dame's average of 5.1 rush yards per carry could go way down!
Brian Kelly is the mastermind behind Notre Dame’s offense, Tommy Rees is calling the plays in his first year as Offensive Coordinator. If the name is familiar, that’s because Rees was the Notre Dame starting quarterback in 2011 before being supplanted by Everett Golson in 2012 when they made their run at the BCS National Championship Game, getting blown out by Alabama. Rees reclaimed the starting job in 2013 and led the Irish to a 9-4 record. At just 28 years old, he is one of the youngest coordinators in the game and a rising star. Rees was Notre Dame’s QB Coach in 2018 when they scored just 3 points against the Tigers in the Cotton Bowl.
The real strength of this Notre Dame team is its defense, though. They don’t have any superstars on the defensive line, and their individual statistics won’t wow you, but the Irish have played exceptional team defense all season. They led the Power Five in scoring defense at 10.3 points per game before the double-overtime shootout with the Tigers. Clark Lea was in his first season as Defensive Coordinator when the Tigers and Irish met in the Cotton Bowl, and he is now in his third year. Lea was hired as Head Coach by his alma mater, Vanderbilt, early this week, so you have to wonder how that has affected his preparation for this game. On top of that, National Signing Day was on Wednesday, and Lea surely had his hands full with trying to keep Vandy’s recruiting class together during the transition. The good news for Notre Dame is that, like Clemson, they had last week off, so that gave Lea extra time to prepare. However, we have seen staff changes prior to bowls and playoffs significantly affect teams in the past. In fact, that was one of the theories about Alabama after its 44-16 loss to Clemson in the National Championship. Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin had been hired as FAU Head Coach prior to that game. I asked former UGA and Miami Head Coach Mark Richt about that subject on our ACC Network Zoom call the other day, and he had a very interesting response, saying that he didn’t handle it well at all when he was FSU’s Offensive Coordinator and hired as Georgia’s Head Coach. You can view his response HERE. Brian Kelly was asked about Lea today, and he seemed rather defensive about the topic, saying sternly that Lea was committed to Notre Dame throughout the end of the season. I wonder if there is anything to his defensiveness. Sure, Lea will be on the sideline on Saturday, but will he be as prepared as he would have been without all of the distractions and obligations that come with taking over another program in the SEC, far from South Bend? Time will tell. The Irish did a reasonably good job against the Tigers in the first meeting—they certainly shut down Travis Etienne and the Tigers’ run game. But they also gave up 33 points in regulation and a Notre Dame record 439 passing yards to a true freshman quarterback making his second start.
Perhaps the biggest leader on the defense is sixth-year senior safety Shaun Crawford (#20). That’s right, he was granted a sixth year by the NCAA due to several injuries he has overcome, and he is making the most of it. He recorded an interception on the goal line against FSU and also has a fumble recovery and a sack this season. Staying in the secondary, graduate transfer Nick McCloud (#4) from NC State is also having an excellent season with 25 tackles and 8 PBU’s to go along with an interception and a fumble recovery. He is a Rock Hill, SC native, so you know he’s excited about facing the Tigers again! One of Notre Dame’s two most talented defenders is sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton (#14). The 6’4, 219-pound Atlanta native is an athletic freak, who will remind Clemson fans of Isaiah Simmons.
The other most talented defensive player for the Irish is junior rover linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (#6), who is likely an NFL first-rounder next spring. Clemson fans are still having nightmares about the two turnovers he forced in the first meeting, one of which he returned for a touchdown. Those two plays against the Tigers’ two most veteran stars, Etienne and Rodgers, came on back-to-back possessions, giving Notre Dame 10 points just when the Tigers had seized momentum back, and they were the difference in the halftime score and the final outcome. Owusu has cat-like reflexes and is an extremely hard hitter. He was in the Tigers’ backfield so fast on that pitch play that Travis took his eye of the ball for a nanosecond, which is all it took for him to fumble right into the hands of Owusu, who knew what to do with it. Owusu leads the team with 48 tackles and has 1.5 sacks, one INT, 3 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries. 2 of those forced and recovered fumbles, of course, were against the Tigers.
On the front, 6’4, 268-pound senior DE Adetokunbo Okundeji leads the team with 5.5 sacks and has a forced fumble. 6’4, 257-pound sophomore DE Isaiah Foskey (#7) is second on the team with 4.5 sacks, but look out for 6’3, 258-pound senior DE Daelin Hayes (#9), who has 3 sacks in his last 4 games. He also has and interception and 2 forced fumbles this season.
At kicker, the Tigers always seem to draw a junior or senior, and this week is no exception. Senior Jonathan Doerer is 14-20 this season with a long of 48 yards and will be playing in his hometown of Charlotte. It figures that Doerer happened to have his best game against the Tigers, going 4-5, missing only from 57 yards right before halftime. He made a 44-yarder and a 45-yarder in the game.
Speaking of special teams, the Irish have blocked 2 punts this season and returned both for touchdowns. Notre Dame is also the only Power Five team with punt return touchdowns by two different players. Will Spiers has had a fantastic senior season for the Tigers and is a Semifinalist for the Burlsworth Trophy, which Hunter Renfrow won 2 years ago. In fact, Spiers is less than a yard under Clemson legend Chris Gardocki's season average. However, Spiers had his worst game of the season the last time out in Blacksburg. He'll need to be on his toes for this one!
Notre Dame is ranked No.18 in scoring offense (37.7 points/game), No.11 in rushing offense (235.0 yards/game), No.53 in passing offense (239.4 yards per game) and No.19 in total offense (474.4 yards/game). The Irish are No.12 in scoring defense (17.1 points/game), No.8 in rush defense (99.7 yards/game), No.41 in pass defense (214.8 yards/game) and No.14 in total defense (314.5 yards/game). They are No.29 in sacks (2.8/game), No.11 in tackles-for-loss (8.1/game), No.60 in interceptions (6) and No.26 in turnover margin (+0.6/game). They are 27th in turnovers gained (16) but have given it away 10 times.
It's been another amazing season for the Tigers, but what's more amazing is how they've had to do it. The pandemic is the great equalizer, and in addition to regularly missing starters due to COVID, the Tigers have been plagued with the worst rash of injuries in years--especially at receiver. It all started with Justyn Ross's rare spinal disorder that was accidentally discovered in June and caused him to miss the season. As if it wasn't bad enough losing their biggest play-making receiver, they also lost their next two biggest down-field threats in Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson for most of the season. Ladson played a couple games but has missed most of the season, including the first meeting with Notre Dame. Ngata had one catch for 14 yards in that game but missed virtually the rest of the season. What unfortunate luck for Tyler Grisham in his first year as WR Coach! Despite missing those three big-time targets and 4 new starters on the offensive line, the Tigers have remarkably scored more points in 10 games than any Clemson team in history! Redshirt senior Cornell Powell has answered the bell to have the breakout season we've all been waiting for, and Amari Rodgers has stepped up his game as well. The pair is just one of three duos in the nation with at least 650 reception yards each! The others being at Alabama and Boston College. Many wonder why Travis Etienne has not put up the big rushing yards that he has in his previous 3 seasons. Well, it's pretty simple: defenses have made it impossible for him to do so by bringing more players to the line of scrimmage than can be blocked. However, Travis has still managed to take over games by adapting and becoming lethal in the passing game. He is the only player in the nation with at least 750 yards rushing and 500 reception yards! He also became the all-time leading rusher in yards after setting the ACC touchdown record last year, and he has the most career games with a TD in FBS history. Travis is currently 5th in FBS career TD's, passing Heisman winner Ricky Williams earlier this season. He needs 2 more to tie Travis Prentice for 4th.
The Tigers have obviously been itching for this rematch since the stunning heartbreaker in South Bend 6 weeks ago. Trevor Lawrence said that as he and James Skalski, the quarterback of the defense, who also missed the game, watched Notre Dame fans rush the field, Skalski looked at him and said, “We’ve gotta get another shot at these guys.” Well, they have steamrolled Pitt and VA Tech since then, and now they have that opportunity they’ve been waiting for. The Tigers aren’t used to losing at all, let alone in the regular season. In fact, last month’s double-overtime loss at Notre Dame was just the second regular season loss in the career of seniors Travis Etienne and Amari Rodgers. It was the first for the majority of the Tigers’ roster. It’s even more seldom for the Tigers to get an opportunity to avenge a loss. Trevor Lawrence played his worst career game against LSU in the National Championship last year, and he will never get to exorcise that demon. However, this entire team gets to have it out again with the Irish and prove that their only loss this season was a fluke.
There were certainly a lot of flukish things about that first meeting. There were the 3 turnovers by the Tigers, 2 of which were committed by seniors Travis Etienne and Amari Rodgers, and they led directly to 10 points for the Irish, not to mention momentum. Take away either one of those and the Tigers win the game. Then, of course, there was Trevor Lawrence catching COVID just late enough to miss the game. Many say that his true freshman replacement was not the reason the Tigers lost, and while that’s true—DJ passed for more yards against Notre Dame than any QB in history—you can bet that the Tigers would have won the game with Trevor Lawrence alone. They were just 4 of 15 on 3rd down—2 of 6 on short yardage—and were unable to keep possession in the final 2 minutes with the lead to put the game away. Trevor would have made a play here or a play there that DJ did not make, which would have led to more points. He also wouldn’t have taken those two sacks in double-overtime that ended the game. Then, of course, there were the more critical absences for the Tigers: Skalski, Davis and Mike Jones. While their inexperienced backups did not play badly, the Tigers are much more suffocating defensively with those three on the field, and we have seen that in the Pitt and VA Tech games since (although Skalski did not play against the Hokies). Notre Dame was able to run the football effectively all night, and that ate up the clock and wore out the Tigers’ defense. That would not have happened with those three on the field. Ian Book would also not have been able to make as many plays while scrambling with those three on the field. In addition, starting safety Lannden Zanders left the game just before halftime, followed by Bryan Bresee, Nolan Turner and Justin Mascoll all leaving the game hurt. One other thing I have heard no one bring up except for myself is that Xavier Thomas missed the first half due to targeting, and he played just 11 snaps in the game. He has come on very strong of late and is playing about as well as he has in his career. In fact, he has 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble in his last 95 snaps, which is about a game and a half’s worth of plays! He easily could have had another sack or two as well. I believe he will make be the “XT factor” and make a big difference in this rematch, not only with his pass rushing but his ability to set the edge against the run and contain Ian Book’s scrambling. Bockhorst also left the first game early with an injury, and that exacerbated the fact that the Tigers were already thin and worn out on the offensive line. The starting group has had to carry the burden all season with a young and inexperienced second group. As a result, those starters were averaging around 85 plays per game going into Notre Dame, and that’s not even counting special teams. I believe that took its toll and was a big reason for the Tigers’ struggles in the trenches at South Bend. This time, Bockhorst is back, and the Tigers’ offensive line is well-rested after a week off.
While still not full strength, the Tigers are in much better shape for the rematch. Trevor Lawrence, obviously, will make his 35th career start, and the Tigers will have Skalski, Davis and Jones back in the middle of the defense. Dabo told me today that Joseph Ngata will be out, but starting safety Lannden Zanders and WR Frank Ladson WILL be available. That is great news for the Tigers! Ladson, who is coming off foot surgery, did not play in the first meeting, and if he is healthy, he will give the Tigers another dangerous deep ball threat to go with Amari and Cornell. The only other player out for the Tigers is backup MLB Jake Venables, who had arm surgery last week. He will miss the rest of the season. That could be a factor, since Skalski’s condition is tenuous. He rushed his return in order to play on Senior Day against Pitt and was held out of the VA Tech game as a precaution because he was sore. If he gets knocked out of the game on Saturday, his replacement at MLB will be sophomore Kane Patterson or freshman Lavonta Bentley. Both have played well and seen a lot of snaps in recent weeks, but they don’t know the defense as well as Jake Venables, who forced a touchdown-saving fumble by Ian Book in South Bend.
Clemson is ranked No.5 in scoring offense (46.0 points/game), No.70 in rushing offense (158.3 yards/game), No.7 in passing offense (346.0 yards per game) and No.11 in total offense (504.3 yards/game). The Tigers are No.15 in scoring defense (18.3 points/game), No.11 in rush defense (105.4 yards/game), No.25 in pass defense (196.6 yards/game) and No.7 in total defense (302.0 yards/game). They are No.5 in sacks (3.8/game), No.3 in tackles-for-loss (9.3/game), No.7 in interceptions (13) and No.11 in turnover margin (+1.0/game). They are 2nd in turnovers gained (22) but have given it away 12 times.
There will be many great matchups to watch in this game. The biggest one will be in the trenches on both sides. Notre Dame controlled the line of scrimmage in the first meeting, and while the Tigers still had a chance to win, it was a major difference in the game. Turnovers were another major difference—3 to 1 in Notre Dame’s favor. The Tigers have a better turnover margin for the season but lost by 2 in the first meeting, and it cost them the game. The Tigers will also have to do much better on 3rd down, both offensively and defensively. WR Skowronek only had 4 catches, but they were all big. He killed the Tigers on 3rd down. So did TE’s Tremble and Mayer, who Notre Dame calls “Baby Gronk.” The true freshman had a big game with 67 yards, including a couple big 3rd down conversions. The Tigers will have to figure out a way to get off the field on 3rd down, and they must convert them offensively—especially on 3rd and short.
Some seem surprised that the Tigers are favored by 10.5 points, given that they lost the first meeting. Personally, I am surprised it’s not closer to 14 points. After all, despite all the absences and all the mistakes made by the Tigers in the first meeting, they had a 7-point lead with the football and 2 minutes left! Many have talked about the 47 points allowed by a Brent Venables defense, but look more closely. Even without 3 of their best players on defense, the Tigers allowed just 9 points between the first minute and last minute of regulation! On the road…9 points. The Irish caught the Tigers on their heels on that second play from scrimmage, and Williams ran the stretch zone for a long touchdown. After that, the Tigers settled in and kept the Irish out of the end zone. The offense gave Notre Dame 10 points on fumbles by Etienne and Rodgers, but outside of that, it was just 9 points allowed by the defense until that final 90-yard drive in the final minute of regulation. And I believe that the defense was simply gassed by that point in the game. By then, they were missing half of their starters and were sucking wind. I wouldn’t expect that to be the case in the rematch! Keep an eye on the 2nd quarter, by the way. Notre Dame has outscored opponents 141-35 in the 2nd quarter this season, including a 13-6 margin over the Tigers.
We know the Tigers’ will have a chip on their shoulder, but the Irish will have one too because they have been hearing for the last 6 weeks that they didn’t beat a full-strength Clemson team with Trevor Lawrence. And they are also playing for a conference championship, something that would set them apart from the 131 other Notre Dame teams before them. So the Tigers will get Notre Dame’s very best, but I believe the Tigers are still considerably more talented and deeper than the Irish, and when the Tigers show up to a game mad with everything on the line, it usually spells doom for the opponent. Trevor Lawrence now knows what it feels like to lose a game of this magnitude, and he doesn’t want to feel that again. Travis Etienne may not say it, but I believe he wants to redeem himself for the worst game of his career. And in addition to all the other motivators at work and everything at stake for the Tigers, I have to believe there is a little bit of ACC pride, given that this one-time ACC member, which has been independent for 131 years, is trying to steal the trophy that Clemson—a charter member of the ACC—has possessed for 5 years running. In fact, senior DT Nyles Pinckney said something to that effect to me last week, and former Clemson OL Eric Mac Lain, who started on the 2015 team that began this dynasty, told me that many fans of other ACC schools are rooting for the Tigers to beat Notre Dame for that very reason. They don’t want an “outsider” to come along and win the conference in their one—and presumably only—year in the conference. The Irish have already ended the Tigers’ historic ACC win streak, one game shy of tying FSU for the longest streak ever!
Motivation aside, this game will come down to coaching and execution. The first meeting certainly did. The Tigers have a talent advantage in the rematch, but they will still have to execute and take care of the football. Give the Irish 7 or 10 points like they did in the first meeting, and it will be a much more stressful game than it should be. This is the Championship Phase for the Tigers. They have dominated every opponent they have faced in the ACC Championship since 2015. This will be the sixth different opponent but the first time they have seen their opponent already in the regular season. I don’t think Ian Book, Kyren Williams and company have any idea what they are about to face on Saturday with Brent Venables and a near full-strength defense. And on the other side, Trev and Trav are going show the Irish what the Clemson offense can really do. It’s going to be chilly in Charlotte, but revenge is a dish best served cold! The Tigers deny Notre Dame's attempt at a wham, bam, thank you ma'am and win their 20th ACC Title. Clemson joins FSU and Alabama as the only programs to win at least 10 games in 10 straight seasons, a particularly special feat in this 2020 season!
The Prowl toward a 6th consecutive ACC Title and 6th consecutive College Football Playoff appearance is complete….The Prowl toward a 3rd consecutive National Championship Game and 4th National Title continues…..
CLEMSON 41 Notre Dame 20
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