Trevor Lawrence faces his toughest test yet with Notre Dame’s pass defense. The combo with Travis Etienne makes Clemson tough to stop overall.
The Vegas lines for the College Football Playoff matchups fall in line with what the advanced metrics assess: it’s Alabama, Clemson – and then there’s everyone else.
That’s not to say Notre Dame and Oklahoma aren’t talented and capable of winning Saturday, but over the course of the season, the Tigers and Tide have impressed that much more.
In the S&P+ metric, Alabama (29.7) and Clemson’s ratings (27.9) have a healthy gap on Oklahoma (22.1) and Notre Dame (20.6). The same is true – and that much more – in ESPN’s Football Power Index, with Clemson (30.1) 10 points clear of Notre Dame (20.1) and Alabama (31.2) just over the same of Oklahoma (21).
As it stands now, Clemson is a 13-point favorite over the Fighting Irish after the line opened at 10.5, while the Alabama line over Oklahoma has held steady at 14 points.
Taking a closer look at the matchup…
Advanced metrics profile
ESPN efficiency rank: Offense – 4. Defense – 1. Special teams – 125.
Football Outsiders efficiency rank (S&P+): Offense – 7. Defense – 1. Special teams – 99.
Success rate*: Offense – 7. Defense – 1.
ESPN efficiency rank: Offense – 19. Defense – 11. Special teams – 44.
Football outsiders efficiency rank (S&P+): Offense – 26. Defense – 4. Special teams – 62.
Success rate: Offense – 51. Defense – 18.
Three areas to watch in the Cotton Bowl:
1. Clemson offense in Notre Dame territory
Clemson faces its toughest defensive test of the season in Notre Dame, which ranks fourth in S&P+ defensive efficiency (next-best Clemson opponent was 28th, BC, the only in the top-40 currently).
One reason for Notre Dame’s success has been holding opponents down once they cross midfield, ranking fourth in points allowed per scoring chance (3.27 points per drive inside the 40).
Clemson has been even more efficient on the offensive side with a No. 4 ranking in points per scoring opportunity (5.47) and also a No. 4 ranking in red zone TD percentage (76.7), where Notre Dame ranks 34th defensively (54.6).
Inside the 10, Clemson ranks No. 2 in success rate (64.5) up against a Notre Dame defense also in the top-10 (9th; 35.3).
2. Notre Dame offense balance vs. Clemson defense
Given that Clemson is ranked No. 1 in defensive S&P+, it’s a given that Brent Venables’ group is also the toughest test for Notre Dame thus far. If the numbers hold in one area, there will be a lot of pressure on first-year starter QB Ian Book.
Notre Dame ranks 74th in rushing S&P+ going into a matchup with the No. 1 rushing defense. The Irish are stuffed at or behind the line at a 23.8 percent rate, which ranks 118th nationally. Clemson is third in the nation in defensive stuff rate (27).
Few teams have performed better than Clemson when pushing teams into passing downs^, ranking third nationally in S&P+ there, ninth in sack rate (12.5) and 14th in explosiveness allowed. Despite a top-20 passing offense overall, Notre Dame ranks 45th in passing downs efficiency and 70th in explosiveness there.
Making Book uncomfortable in the pocket could tip the scales in Clemson’s favor. Per Pro Football Focus, he has graded 48.2 on passing plays after leaving the pocket and still attempted the 21st-most of those passes of any QB (despite taking over as a starter four games in). Within the pocket, Book is among the better passers nationally with an 82.6 grade.
3. Clemson offense in passing down situations
Speaking of passing situations, strength meets strength with the Tigers through the air versus Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish hold a top-10 defense versus the pass overall (8th), in efficiency (9th) and against explosiveness (8th) despite a mid-tier sack rate (58th).
Much of that success is due to success when teams are in passing downs, ranking 7th overall and top-10 against opponent explosiveness.
Trevor Lawrence leads a Clemson offense that’s sixth-best on passing downs and 15th in explosiveness. In overall efficiency, the Tigers are led by the running game (8th in S&P+) but hold a respectable 27th ranking in passing S&P+. Part of that efficiency is Lawrence being sacked only 2.5 percent of his snaps, and according to Pro Football Focus, he holds the second-fastest average time to throw among Power 5 conference (2.19).
Lawrence has stepped up his game in key situations when needed this season and his ability to keep Clemson balanced on offense can keep Notre Dame on its heels come Saturday.
Metrics outlook: Clemson-Notre Dame
S&P+: 30-22 Clemson
TeamRankings: 35-20 Clemson
numberFire: 34-24 Clemson
FEI: Clemson 27-23
(S&P+ is a SB Nation/Football Outsiders metric that combines ratings for the five factors of efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives and turnovers.
# The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) is a college football rating system based on opponent-adjusted possession efficiency.
* Success rate is determined by gaining 50 percent of the necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down and 100 percent on third and fourth down.
^ Passing downs are defined as second down with eight or more yards to go or third or fourth down with five or more yards to go. All other situations are “standard” downs.)
Trevor Lawrence finished in the top 25 of all the nation’s signal-callers both when kept clean AND when pressured pic.twitter.com/WzvMaa1kU6
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 24, 2018
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 19, 2018
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 20, 2018
Tee Higgins finished as the ACC’s highest-graded receiver pic.twitter.com/6vilZRF54K
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 21, 2018