USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg previews the two upcoming College Football Playoff matchups and explains why Oklahoma was awarded the final spot.
USA TODAY Sports
Notre Dame named Ian Book its starting quarterback on Sept. 22. Two days later, Clemson made a similar call in promoting Trevor Lawrence into the starting role, ahead of an established starter fresh off an Atlantic Coast Conference championship and berth in the College Football Playoff.
The most obvious theme that binds together the Irish and Tigers in advance of the Cotton Bowl is the difficult choice each coaching staff made at the game’s most crucial position: At a moment when both could’ve stayed the course under center, Brian Kelly and Dabo Swinney opted to roll the dice behind unproven backups before the end of the season’s opening month.
“That’s why we recruited him,” Swinney said of Lawrence. “It was pretty clear in the spring that this guy is going to be special.”
Each coach has looked brilliant in hindsight. Book has lifted Notre Dame’s offense to new heights, with a polished arm and sneaky athleticism the perfect recipe for a scheme predicated on intelligent quarterback play. Lawrence has played far beyond his years, with 24 touchdowns and just four interceptions as a true freshman tasked with maintaining college football’s greatest dynasty this side of Tuscaloosa. While neither starter brings ample starting experience into the Cotton Bowl, that fits into the story of this year’s playoff: All four of the quarterbacks involved are first-year starters.
The team that can rattle the opposing quarterback will win the Cotton Bowl. That’s easier said than done, of course. One might think that Lawrence would stumble at least once as a freshman. That simply hasn’t happened. He was fantastic as the backup to Kelly Bryant, who has since opted to transfer, and equally consistent upon his move into the starting lineup. Book has been a revelation, as an under-recruited prospect who ascended up the depth chart in September and has since tossed 19 touchdowns while completing more than 70 percent of his attempts.
The Tigers’ sense of security stems from the nation’s most powerful defensive line. It’s this group that should worry Notre Dame heading into the postseason: Clemson has four future NFL players in its starting lineup and an embarrassing wealth of riches in reserve. Senior Christian Wilkins and junior Dexter Lawrence key the interior while senior Austin Bryant, junior Clelin Ferrell and freshman Xavier Thomas bring pressure from the edges. Combined, it’s a wealth of talent no team on Clemson’s schedule has been able to handle.
“You have to go take it from them,” Kelly said. “They are not going to give it to you.”
Notre Dame has faced off with similarly gifted defensive fronts, most notably in its season-opening win against Michigan. Overall, the Irish have allowed 19 sacks on the year, good for 29th in the Football Bowl Subdivision. But Clemson will provide a different test. How well the Irish respond to the Tigers’ pressure from end to end is likely the Cotton Bowl’s deciding factor.
Then again, this is a Notre Dame team that has quietly built a reputation to match its lofty place in the final rankings. The Irish were doubted more than once in the regular season — to Michigan in the opener, even to Stanford and Syracuse deeper into the year. From September through November, the Irish have responded to doubts about their ability to match wits with the nation’s best by unveiling a series of impressive wins. Consider the 36-3 win against the Orange, for example, which led Syracuse coach Dino Babers to compare Notre Dame favorably to Clemson. Don’t forget that shared opponent: Clemson beat Syracuse 27-23 at home, thanks to a late touchdown, while the Irish cruised by 33 points on a neutral field.
“It’s amazing what they’ve done with the schedule they’ve had,” Swinney said of Notre Dame.
In other words, the idea that Clemson will roll through Notre Dame and into the Playoff title game isn’t rooted in reality. On paper, the pairing is far more even than the odds might lead one to believe — Clemson came out as a double-digit favorite.
Like Clemson, the Irish win by owning the line of scrimmage. Notre Dame ranks 33rd nationally in carries per game and 32nd in rushing touchdowns. On defense. the Irish rank eighth in yards allowed per play. The defense allowed 2.6 yards per carry in games against ranked competition. Each team will attempt the set the tone by controlling the point of attack; how Notre Dame handles Clemson’s pressure from its defensive line is likely the game’s deciding factor.
So this national semifinal differs in one key respect from the other, an Orange Bowl meeting of Alabama and Oklahoma. That game will be played in fast-forward, between two offenses looking to score the other out of contention. In comparison, the Cotton Bowl will be a throwback: Clemson and Notre Dame battling in the trenches, and may the stronger team win.