OK, OK. As somebody born and raised in South Bend, Ind., home of the University of Notre Dame, this is interesting: When you consider a three-year average for 2014, 2015 and 2016, the Fighting Irish are the nation’s seventh most valuable team in college football, and Clemson doesn’t crack the top 25.
The thing is, when the two programs meet in Dallas next week in the Cotton Bowl for a semifinal game of the College Football Playoff, they won’t take the field slinging dollars and cents at each other.
HUGE advantage, Clemson.
In fact, if you go by the oddsmakers, 12-0 Notre Dame is essentially a two-touchdown underdog against 13-0 Clemson, which opened as a 11.5-point favorite over the Irish when this matchup was first announced earlier this month.
So I speak on behalf of Notre Dame followers everywhere by screaming, YES!!!! Digger Phelps told the truth years ago by declaring the Irish as the most dangerous underdogs in the history of sports. Oh, and Phelps should know. On January 19, 1974, his Notre Dame basketball team shocked UCLA and the universe during a home game. The Irish overcame an 11-point deficit with barely three minutes left for a 71-70 victory in the final seconds to stop UCLA’s record 88-game winning streak.
Three weeks before that, Notre Dame’s football team wrestled the national championship away from No. 1-ranked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, with much help from a miracle pass at the end for a 24-23 victory.
On and on, I could go, ranging from Knute Rockne’s “Win one for The Gipper” days of the 1920s through Notre Dame football triumphs over supposedly invincible foes such as Miami in 1988 and Florida State in 1993, but you get picture.
Clemson is in trouble.
I think. Notre Dame linebacker Drue Tranquill thinks the same, but the Irish’s emotional leader joins me in admitting that Notre Dame hasn’t looked the best in recent years when the national spotlight is the brightest. After the Irish went undefeated during the 2012 season, they were embarrassed 42-14 by Alabama in the national championship game. They got rocked 44-28 three years later in the Fiesta Bowl by Ohio State. Despite an 8-1 record at the time, they looked petrified in 2017 during a regular-season game at Miami, where they were crushed 41-8.
“I mean, nobody likes Notre Dame,” Tranquill told reporters earlier this month on campus. “That’s just the reality of it. If you’re not Notre Dame, you don’t like Notre Dame. All the experts have to pull from their recent experience is what’s happened over the last 10 years and how we got blown out by Alabama in ’12 and lost to Ohio State in ’15 in the Fiesta Bowl. Every time we go against a school with seemingly superior athletes on paper, we haven’t fared well.
“This team is different. This team is not the ’12 team. This team isn’t ’15. Look at our athletes on paper. I think we’ve got a pretty good spread as well, and I’d take us.”
Well, um. I’m feeling good about the Irish’s chances. Let’s start with their 2015 visit to Clemson. I was there for that matchup between undefeated teams in the midst of a nasty rainstorm. After the Tigers threatened a blowout with a 21-3 lead in the second half, Notre Dame surged back, closing the score to 24-22 with a touchdown near the end and going for the two-point conversion in search of overtime. Clemson defenders stopped Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer just shy of the end zone.
Now consider this: Since Clemson has won 56 of its past 60 games, these Tigers are about as great as the ones from that 2015 game, but this Notre Dame team is significantly better, particularly at quarterback. While Kizer was an inconsistent passer, Ian Book is as steady as they come. He’s completing 70 percent of his throws, and he ranks eighth in the country in passing efficiency at 162.50. The Irish also are better at running back since Dexter Williams is always a threat to break The Big One, and they’re better on defense featuring Jerry Tillery, a prolific pass rusher to combine with Tranquill and others for a frequently stifling group.
Still, according to bookmakers, Notre Dame is expected to become an easy chew for the Tigers. But as Tranquill added to reporters, “Who cares what the spread has to say?”
Notre Dame doesn’t.
That’s because Notre Dame hasn’t in the past.