Two years ago, Notre Dame went 4–8 and everybody thought Brian Kelly was going to be fired. Despite the rumors, Kelly knew he had to make critical changes to his program. He overhauled his staff and himself (he started doing yoga) and began spending more time with his players. In 2017, his team won 10 games and he was asked how Notre Dame would build off that success, especially after losing two top 10 NFL draft picks. The Fighting Irish responded by going 12–0 this season, which likely wouldn’t have happened if Kelly didn’t make the difficult decision to switch starting quarterbacks after the third game. Brandon Wimbush had gone 12–3 as a starter, but Ian Book opened up the offense and limited the amount of snaps the defense had to play. The plan worked and now Notre Dame will play in its first playoff.
Clemson is in the playoff for the fourth time in a row. Last year, the Tigers got here despite one loss; this season, they ran the table and finished as undefeated ACC champions. Like Kelly, Dabo Swinney made the difficult decision early on to switch quarterbacks, starting the more productive freshman Trevor Lawrence over incumbent Kelly Bryant, who would later transfer. Once the offense started utilizing talented sophomore running back Travis Etienne, things opened up even more and Clemson began blowing teams out Alabama-style, leaving no doubt they were one of the most dominant teams in the country.
Storyline you’ll get tired of
Duck crepes and pizza parties, of course. Slightly kidding, but no one will ever forget that Notre Dame served duck crepes before its selection-day watch party while Clemson ate pizza. The real story everyone will quickly get tired of discussing will be about how both Kelly and Swinney made difficult albeit season-altering decisions to change their starting quarterbacks. Notre Dame moved on from Wimbush when he was 12–3 as a starter, to Ian Book who led his team to an undefeated season. Clemson switched from Kelly Bryant, who led his team to the playoff last season, in favor of a more commanding and productive option in Lawrence. Both teams have made significant strides since making these changes.
One-on-one matchup to watch
Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams vs. Clemson’s intimidating defensive line. From the minute he returned from an early season suspension, Williams has been one of the most important players for the Irish, rushing for 117.6 yards per game and 12 touchdowns in eight games. It’s so hard to run against Clemson’s four-man front that like to blitz, featuring high-round draft talent like Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins. This will undoubtedly be the best defense Williams faced this season (he didn’t play against Michigan). However, Williams poses as the fastest running back the Tigers will have seen in awhile, too.
Notre Dame QB Ian Book has a knack for extending plays, can sense the rush and maintains his accuracy on the move. Clemson will also have to account for the fact that Book’s weapons include tall receivers like Miles Boykin (6’4″) and Chase Claypool (6’4″), plus tight end Alize Mack (6’5″) who are nightmare matchups for any defense.
The last time these teams played was three years ago in Death Valley amid a hurricane. Clemson led 21–3 in the fourth quarter, but Notre Dame rallied back only to ultimately lose 24–22 after a failed two-point conversion with seven seconds left. This year, both teams are fairly even when it comes to defensive dominance (for a good time, watch both pass rushes) and quarterback efficiency. It will be a close game, but Notre Dame has proven it can win those this year and will avenge that 2015 regular season loss to make its first national championship game since 2012.