Cot­ton Bowl:

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Paul Myer­berg

Notre Dame and Clem­son clash in what could be a closer matchup than the line in­di­cates.

Clem­son’s road to the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off was paved by the Septem­ber de­ci­sion to swap en­trenched starter Kelly Bryant with backup Trevor Lawrence, a true fresh­man.

Notre Dame’s road to the play­off was paved by the Septem­ber de­ci­sion to swap en­trenched starter Bran­don Wim­bush with backup Ian Book, a lightly used ju­nior.

Per­haps you’re sens­ing a theme. For both teams — one that ex­pected to be here, the other that hoped to reach this point — a berth in the Cot­ton Bowl was rooted in a de­ci­sion to shift quar­ter­backs nearly mid­stream and hand the reins to an untested backup.

The de­ci­sions look bril­liant in hind­sight. Sold as a once-in-awhile sort of quar­ter­back tal­ent as a five-star re­cruit, Lawrence has more than lived up to his ad­vance billing. He enters the post­sea­son with 24 touch­down passes against four in­ter­cep­tions, with only two turnovers com­ing since he was named the starter in Septem­ber.

By com­par­i­son, Book was an un­der-re­cruited prospect not pegged for great­ness upon his ar­rival on cam­pus. But he’s been equally effec­tive: Book has thrown for 19 touch­downs while com­plet­ing more than 70 per­cent of his at­tempts since mak­ing his own move into the lineup in Septem­ber. He played his best in the season’s final month, with six touch­downs against two in­ter­cep­tions in must-win games against North­west­ern, Syra­cuse and South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

That nei­ther Lawrence nor Book has faced the sort of pres­sure in­her­ent to a play­off game makes it difficult to pre­dict how each will fare on col­lege foot­ball’s big­gest stage. In a broader sense, how­ever, that Clem­son has been here be­fore — four years in a row, in fact — is a ma­jor as­set.

The Tigers know how to map out the weeks be­tween the an­nounce­ment and the game it­self and how re­main fo­cused on the matchup amid the glitz and glam­our of the play­offs. Notre Dame hasn’t played for a na­tional cham­pi­onship since 2012, when it was han­dled by Alabama in one of the final pair­ings of the Bowl Cham­pi­onship Se­ries era. To not pay at­ten­tion to Clem­son’s fa­mil­iar­ity with this sort of mo­ment would be to ig­nore a fac­tor in the Tigers’ cor­ner.

An­other as­set is Clem­son’s de­fen­sive line. Notre Dame has matched up well with strong de­fen­sive fronts, as in the win against Michi­gan to open the season, but the Tigers’ front of Chris­tian Wilkins, Dex­ter Lawrence, Austin Bryant and Clelin Fer­rell will present a differ­ent test. Much like Lawrence, this group has more than de­liv­ered on its pre­sea­son prom­ise. The onus will be on Notre Dame’s offen­sive line to keep Book clean in the pocket, and this line has done a steady job in pass pro­tec­tion all season.

The matchup of Clem­son’s de­fen­sive line against Notre Dame’s offense is em­blem­atic of the larger view of the Cot­ton Bowl. Clem­son is a dou­ble-digit fa­vorite; the Ir­ish con­tinue to be un­der­dogs in the cham­pi­onship race. Mean­while, Notre Dame’s track record since Septem­ber tells the story of a team that matches up well with every op­po­nent , whether with Michi­gan’s phys­i­cal­ity or Syra­cuse’s high-pow­ered offense. In other words, the Ir­ish re­sem­ble a team that is far stronger than the sum of its parts.

The Ir­ish need to at least play to a draw in the bat­tle along the line of scrim­mage. Like­wise in turnover mar­gin, where the Ir­ish could stand to be in the black. The run­ning game needs to click. Book needs to de­liver on time. These aren’t un­reach­able goals. When it comes to the Cot­ton Bowl, the big­gest differ­ence might come in Clem­son’s room for er­ror.


Ok­la­homa head coach Lin­coln Ri­ley.


Ian Book threw 18 of his 19 TD passes af­ter be­ing named the Notre Dame starter in late Septem­ber.

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