2018 Cotton Bowl, Clemson vs. Notre Dame: Five keys to the College Football Playoff semifinal
The No. 2 Tigers are looking to get back to the title game, while the No. 3 Irish are planning a major upset
DALLAS -- No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Notre Dame will finally be tested -- by each other. OK, maybe that's an exaggeration, but the teams come into the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Cotton Bowl each having played exactly two ranked teams (at the time of kickoff).
Clemson played none after the month of September -- an indicator of how down the ACC was this season: Texas A&M (a two-point win) and Syracuse (a four-point win) left their mark. That said, after those games, no opponent came within 20 points of the Tigers.
As for Notre Dame, it opened the year with a 24-17 win over then-No. 8 Michigan. That turned out to be the season's signature win. The Wolverines won 10 games, fielding one of the best defenses in the country. That result came before Ian Book took over at quarterback for the Irish, meaning the Notre Dame defense was fairly stout, too.
ND also handled then-No. 17 Syracuse 36-3 in Yankee Stadium on Nov. 17. That means the go-to man for analysis on the Cotton Bowl is Dino Babers, Syracuse's coach who faced both teams. He calls Clemson "superheroes." He also says the Irish – 12 ½-point underdogs -- have a heck of a shot.
Here are five keys to the Cotton Bowl.
1. The G.O.A.T.: That's one label that has been attached to Clemson's defensive line. The unit that includes Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins has at least been mentioned as the greatest of all-time. While those debates continue, this one is indisputable: The game will revolve around how that unit deals with Notre Dame. There's one caveat, of course: Lawrence has been suspended for the game after failing an NCAA drug test. For all the talk about how down the ACC was and questions about Notre Dame's schedule, the defensive line -- minus Lawrence -- must control this game. It allowed a national-best 4.08 yards per play.
The truth is that Clemson (arguably) faced exactly one elite quarterback this season. NC State's Ryan Finley threw two picks (and no touchdowns) in a 41-7 Tigers' win on Oct. 20. Now, try to explain the Jake Bentley performance. South Carolina's quarterback threw five touchdowns against Clemson in the last regular-season game.
Expect a robust performance from a unit that may be playing together for the last time or leading the way to a national championship. Key stat: Clemson had a top 10 "stuff rate" of 13.8 percent. That's the ratio of carries by opposing running backs stopped at or before the line of scrimmage.
2. Trevor Lawrence has to run: Weird, right? We're talking a freshman All-American who basically caused Kelly Bryant to seek another home. Lawrence's arm is a hose, but Clemson coach Dabo stressed recently that Lawrence at least has to provide a running threat. That's what Clemson lost when Bryant transferred.
"We needed him to get more comfortable scrambling and making plays," Swinney said. "He's sometimes too confident in his arm. He can throw three Mississippis late and get it there. When there's nobody rushing, he can run. We've got some designed runs, too."
Key stat: Lawrence rushed for only 144 yards thiss season, but 95 of those yards came in the last four games.
3. Battle of the offensive brainiacs: Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long and his Clemson counterpart Jeff Scott were both finalists for the Broyles Award (assistant coach of the year). Long sharpened Book into an effective weapon after the junior quarterback replaced senior Brandon Wimbush. Scott was in the middle of a transition of his own when Bryant left the program.
Key stat: Lawrence has thrown two interceptions since Sept. 22, only four all season in 326 attempts. Advantage Scott?
4. Handling the long layoff: When the Irish take the field Wednesday, it will have been 35 days since they last played football. Will rust be a factor? With conference championship games, this is not a question Power Five teams face. Clemson won its fourth consecutive ACC title only four weeks ago.
Key stat: The same question was asked in 2012 when Notre Dame had 43 days between its regular season and the BCS Championship Game. Alabama won 42-14.
5. Team speed: I don't have a stopwatch, but Clemson seems to have the ability to run Notre Dame off the field. Running back Travis Etienne is the best Heisman candidate you never heard about. (Clemson is No. 11 in line yards, which measures offensive line efficiency.) Wide receiver Tee Higgins led the ACC with 10 touchdown catches. Clemson led the ACC with 28 passing plays of at least 30-plus yards. Notre Dame's top-20 defense will have a decision to make: line up in man in the perimeter and devote defenders to the box or play zone trying to take out Higgins and teammate Justyn Ross (second in the ACC with 20.6 yards per catch).
With the Irish lacking a bit of speed on offense (at least compared to the Tigers), there is speculation ND coach Brian Kelly will use freshmen Lawrence Keys and Braden Lenzy. They're a pair of four-star receivers from the Class of 2018 who have yet to play a down. With the new redshirt rules, Lenzy and/or Keys could play without burning a year of eligibility. Kelly hinted earlier this month that could be the case.
Key stat: Clemson ranks in the top four nationally in plays from scrimmage of at least 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 yards. Almost a quarter of their offensive plays (24 percent) have gone for at least 10 yards.
Talk about a disparity in speed: Notre Dame is 78th nationally in plays of 40-plus yards, 67th in plays of 50-plus and 92nd in plays of 60-plus. Yeah, I'd say Notre Dame needs to slow Clemson down.
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