No. 3 Clemson has likely punched its ticket to the College Football Playoff for a sixth-straight season after winning its sixth-straight ACC Championship, taking down No. 2 Notre Dame 34-10 in the conference title game on Saturday in Charlotte.
The rematch of the double-overtime thriller from early November packed all of the intrigue and high stakes you could ask for in the first ACC Championship Game between top-five opponents, but the result was hardly in doubt after a 24-0 run to close the first half put Clemson in the driver's seat. Notre Dame came out of the gate strong as its first three drives all got inside the Clemson 40-yard line, and the defense picked off Trevor Lawrence on Clemson's first offensive possession. But the Fighting Irish had only three points to show for that impressive start due to a missed chip-shot field goal and a turnover on downs in scoring position.
Clemson's defense flipped the script on Ian Book and the Fighting Irish offensive line with relentless pressure and terrific execution in key situations, holding Notre Dame to just 3 of 12 on third down while totaling six sacks and 10 tackles for loss.
But the story of the game was Lawrence and his value to Clemson's success. After sitting out the loss in South Bend, Lawrence threw for 322 yards on 25-of-36 passing with two touchdowns and added 90 rushing yards and another score on 14 attempts. Lawrence makes excellence look easy, so it can be discombobulating when he's effortlessly throwing 67-yard or 33-yard touchdown passes to take over in one of the biggest games of the year.
At one point in the second quarter, Lawrence accounted for all but 10 of Clemson's offensive yards. When Notre Dame adjusted, that's when it had the counter punch of Travis Etienne. The Fighting Irish defense held Etienne under 30 yards rushing in the first meeting but could not limit the big play from the two-time ACC Player of the Year on Saturday. Etienne finished with 124 yards and a touchdown on just 10 carries, including an impressive 44-yard touchdown run just before halftime that turned a competitive game between national championship contenders into a foregone conclusion for the team that has run the ACC in the College Football Playoff era.
Lawrence wasn't the only player who missed the first game between these two, as defensive starters James Skalski, Mike Jones Jr. and Tyler Davis all made their impact felt in their first crack at Notre Dame this season. Skalski had five tackles, a sack and tackle for a loss. Davis had four tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. While Jones finished with just one tackle in the box score, his presence was felt as he helped set the edge to limit Notre Dame's rushing attack -- something he said he was screaming at the television for as he watched the game in November.
While Clemson seems destined for the College Football Playoff, Notre Dame's future now becomes the biggest discussion topic in all of college football. The Fighting Irish were undefeated heading into the game, but now enter a debate with Texas A&M as the next-best one-loss team in the country. Jimbo Fisher tried to argue the Aggies' case after their win against Tennessee, and Brian Kelly will no doubt spend all of the time available lobbying for his team's inclusion in the top four of the final rankings.
But while the 2020 season has provided all kinds of unexpected twists and turns, there was something familiar about seeing Clemson hoist the trophy in Charlotte as the ACC Champions. Its playoff opponent will be determined on Sunday, but its playoff worthiness is without question after showing up, again, as the most championship-worthy team when it comes time to crown champions at the end of the season.
Three things to know about the game:
1. Trevor Lawrence made strong Heisman case
While much of the Heisman Trophy race attention will focus on the SEC Championship Game with Mac Jones, DeVonta Smith and Kyle Trask all in action, Lawrence served a reminder to voters of his value to Clemson's success in the win. While his season totals are impacted by the two games missed following a positive COVID-19 test, the time Lawrence does spend on the field is exceptional enough to be considered in the debate for most outstanding player in the country. Lawrence was awarded ACC Championship Game MVP for his performance, and had Dabo serving as his Heisman hype man after the game.
2. Brian Kelly's playoff talk was prevalent
The Notre Dame coach might have had a press conference heat check earlier this week when he criticized the College Football Playoff for not taking action regarding the potential of a Rose Bowl without players' parents allowed to attend the game. I'm sure the parents of both the current roster and recruits loved the strong statement from Kelly, who suggested that the team might opt out of the postseason if parents could not attend the game. But now the leverage of that discussion has changed. Notre Dame has gone from a potential top-two seed with preferential location treatment to fighting for a playoff spot against teams that won on Saturday. Multiple reports indicate the the CFP could be moving the semifinal that was set for the Rose Bowl, but as Clemson was running away with the game, Kelly's "sit out the playoff" threat was looking ominous should the selection committee think the result was worth dropping Notre Dame from the top four.
3. Clemson overcoming adversity has made it stronger
Clemson played two games without Lawrence, had multiple defensive starters for more games than not, lost Justyn Ross to a season-ending injury prior to the year and suffered its first regular-season loss since 2017. Yet we're back here in a familiar place, looking at Clemson as one of the top two teams in the final College Football Playoff rankings. No coaching staff in the country is better at being prepared for the grind of the modern season than Clemson, a team that's played for the national championship in four out of the last five seasons, and it shows when the Tigers are better-prepared, fresher and sharper than the opposition in these key games in December and January.