The College Football Playoff kicks off Saturday with No. 1 Alabama playing No. 3 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl after No. 2 Clemson takes on No. 3 Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. The first three schools mentioned are CFP veterans, but what about the newcomer? The Fighting Irish enter the postseason undefeated for the second time since 2012 and are looking for their first national title since 1988.
Can coach Brian Kelly's crew get it done? Let's make the case for Notre Dame winning the national title by going through two extremely difficult opponents. Full disclosure: I picked Notre Dame to lose in the semifinal and Clemson to win it all.
1. Defense wins championships: OK, so defense doesn't always win championships nowadays. "Just enough" defense does. There's no doubt that the Fighting Irish has consistently found enough on a weekly basis. They finished the season ranked No. 1 in defensive yards per play against AP Top 25 teams at 3.81, No. 7 overall with 4.53.
Superstars like linebackers Te'Veon Coney (107 tackles) and Drue Tranquill (75 tackles) work together to create pressure from different areas. Defensive lineman Julian Okwara, Jerry Tillery and Khalid Kareem have combined for 32 tackles for loss and consistently disrupted plays before they can get started. Cornerback Julian Love came into the season established as a superstar, and offensive coordinators have consistently avoided him. As a result, Jalen Elliott has thrived. The junior has four picks six pass breakups in 12 games.
A defense that is solid from front to back will make things interesting in the semifinal vs. the Tigers. Coach Dabo Swinney's crew has weapons all over the place, but quarterback Trevor Lawrence is still a true freshman and will be playing on the biggest stage of his life. If Notre Dame can get to him early, it will test his composure and give the double-digit underdogs a punchers chance. If it get Clemson, it'll have its hands full against either Oklahoma or Alabama. But doing it against the Tigers will give the Irish a ton of confidence.
2. Ian Book's growth and progress: The 6-foot, 203-pound junior got a taste of success in the Citrus Bowl last season but lost out to Brandon Wimbush for the starting quarterback job heading into the 2018 season. Since taking over in Week 4, Book has become one of the stars of the sport. He has thrown for 330 or more yards in three of his last four games, finished the regular season ranked No. 11 in passing yards per attempt (8.8) and is 50-of-73 passing with eight touchdown throws on third downs. While had had some experience under his belt, he hasn't had a ton of unquestioned No. 1 snaps in a camp-like setting. Now that he's had bowl practices to do just that, expecting an even better version of Book should be expected.
That should give Fighting Irish fans hope considering what Clemson's defense looked like the last time it faced somewhat decent competition. South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley threw for a career high 510 yards and five touchdowns on on rivalry weekend vs. the Tigers. Here's a look at Ian Book's split stats by month:
3. Respect ... or lack thereof: All eyes are on the other three teams in the CFP. Alabama going wire-to-wire with the No. 1 ranking, Oklahoma's record-setting offense and Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Kyler Murray, and Clemson's combination of a stellar defensive front and rising star at quarterback have stolen the spotlight from Notre Dame and its accomplishments this year. Throw in the experience all three have in the CFP, and Kelly understands why the Irish might be viewed as an outsider.
"They've done it before," he said at the College Football Hall of Fame earlier this month. "We certainly look at it each and every year as a goal for our football team. It's a difficult one but one that we all look forward to in getting to this. So again, a great honor, great to be with these coaches today, and looking forward to the challenge in front of us."
Reading between the lines, that quote suggests that Kelly intends to play the respect card at least a little bit. The three other teams in the field are viewed as college football powers, while the Irish are just two years removed from a 4-8 season. Respect? Notre Dame doesn't have it as much as the other three, and Kelly knows.