Chuck Burton/Associated Press
Clemson’s quest for a rematch with Alabama goes through Notre Dame and the Cotton Bowl.
The second-seeded Tigers are in the College Football Playoff for the fourth consecutive season, while the Fighting Irish are making their first appearance since the format switched to a four-team playoff.
The seasons of both the Tigers and Fighting Irish feature similarities, and that’s not just because Notre Dame plays a good amount of ACC opponents.
Both teams made changes at quarterback, with Trevor Lawrence taking over for Kelly Bryant at Clemson and Ian Book replacing Brandon Wimbush for Notre Dame, and they also possess strong running games and defenses that don’t allow many points.
Clemson opened as a 10.5-point favorite, per OddsShark, but the Cotton Bowl will be a close contest despite many discounting the talents of the Fighting Irish.
Clemson’s been the answer to the question of who is the second-best team behind Alabama all season, and it asserted its dominance late in the season.
After a four-point win over Syracuse to close out September, Clemson outscored its opponents 400-94, with the final demolition of an ACC opponent coming in the 42-10 ACC Championship victory over Pittsburgh.
Mike McCarn/Associated Press
However, the one argument you can make against Clemson is it hasn’t been tested in a close game since the Week 2 road trip to Texas A&M.
Clemson hasn’t faced down-to-the-wire contests because it has been so dominant, but there’s a good chance it will face some type of on-field adversity in the Cotton Bowl or the National Championship.
In their closest win of the season in College Station, Texas, Bryant took the majority of the snaps, while Lawrence contributed a second-quarter touchdown pass to Tee Higgins.
How Lawrence handles the pressure will be key for the Tigers against the third-ranked Fighting Irish, as he’ll be forced to make a few key throws in long-yardage situations.
Lawrence won’t be forced to make a throw in every clutch scenario, as running back Travis Etienne will alleviate the pressure his freshman quarterback faces.
Clemson’s offense could be slowed by Notre Dame’s defense, which ranks ninth in scoring defense at 17.3 points per game.
The Fighting Irish give up less than 200 passing yards per game, which means we could see an emphasis on running the ball out of the Tigers to attack a defense that gives up 133.5 rushing yards per game.
Notre Dame’s defense can keep it in the game for four quarters, but its offense might face challenges moving the ball against Clemson’s tenacious front four.
Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant could all be first-round picks in April’s NFL draft, but they’re going up against a program that traditionally cranks out professional-quality offensive linemen.
The month-long task for Clemson in advance of the Cotton Bowl is to find a way to stop running back Dexter Williams, who is 59 yards away from joining the 51 1,000-yard rushers in the FBS.
Gregory Bull/Associated Press
If Williams can’t get going, the Fighting Irish have trust in Book to carve up the Clemson defense by picking out his long list of targets led by Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool.
Notre Dame’s wide receivers don’t have the national name recognition of others at their position, but Boykin and Claypool have been consistent all year.
Since the win over Stanford at the end of September, Boykin and Claypool have caught three or more passes in every game with the exception of one, when Claypool hauled in one pass against Florida State.
If Book is able to spread the ball around on a consistent basis at AT&T Stadium on December 29, he’ll give his team a chance to create a balanced offense with Clemson committing more numbers to defend the pass.
Clemson 28, Notre Dame 23
If you’re willing to bet on the Cotton Bowl a few weeks in advance, take Notre Dame.
Book will throw for between 250 and 300 yards and Williams makes enough of an impact to throw off Clemson’s defensive line.
However, Clemson has the firepower to answer Notre Dame with Lawrence, Etienne and Higgins, and the Tigers will inch ahead at the start of the fourth quarter.
The Fighting Irish will mount a drive down the field to threaten the Tigers defense one final time, but Dabo Swinney’s team will come up with a few big plays to earn a spot in the January 7 National Championship at Levi’s Stadium.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90
Statistics obtained from ESPN.com