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 five-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 effective: 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 final 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 difficult 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 playoffs. Notre Dame hasn’t played for a national championship since 2012, when it was handled by Alabama in one of the final 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 different test. Much like Lawrence, this group has more than delivered on its preseason promise. The onus will be on Notre Dame’s offensive 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 offense 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 offense. 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 difference 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.