Heading into Saturday’s ACC Championship game between Clemson and Notre Dame, the consensus seems to be that Clemson has this one in the bag.
And they have a lot going for them in favor of that assumption:
- They have the consensus #1 overall NFL draft pick for 2021 in Trevor Lawrence.
- They didn’t have Lawrence in the first matchup with Notre Dame, which they lost 47-40.
- They almost beat Notre Dame even without Lawrence.
- They want revenge.
- It’s really hard to beat a team twice in one season.
- They’re favored by 10.5 points.
- Clemson has won 2 of the past 4 National Championships and been in 4 of the last 5.
- Notre Dame, on the other hand, has only one playoff appearance ever, 2018, and they lost to Clemson 30-3 that game.
It’s hard to argue with any of this.
While Notre Dame is a high-quality program, they’re just not perceived to be on the same level as Clemson. This is a fair assessment, but it doesn’t necessarily mean Clemson is automatically better than Notre Dame right now.
After all, Clemson was considered to be a second-tier program until they beat Alabama in the National Championship game in 2016. Now they’re considered elite.
However, Clemson does have the edge in roster talent over Notre Dame. I looked at both programs’ past five years of recruiting and where their classes ranked each year, per 247 Sports, and averaged them out:
While Clemson definitely has the edge in talent, it’s not as big a gap with Notre Dame as people might think.
But the main thing I want to focus on here is their prior meeting on November 7, which Notre Dame won in double overtime 47-40 in South Bend.
A lot of people are discounting this game completely, saying it doesn’t matter at all because Trevor Lawrence wasn’t playing. I totally get where these people are coming from. Trevor Lawrence is kind of a big deal. Not having him is a huge disadvantage for Clemson. They were without him for two weeks, and the week prior to the Notre Dame game, they nearly lost to Boston College.
But I just want to point out a few things about the first Clemson-Notre Dame matchup:
- Notre Dame scored 47 points. Yes, that was in 2OT. But they had 33 in regulation. Trevor Lawrence doesn’t play defense. Notre Dame racked up 518 total yards of offense in that game. Trevor Lawrence wouldn’t have prevented this.
- I guess you could say that with Lawrence in the game, Clemson’s defense would’ve had it easier because their offense would’ve had them in a better position. That’s fair.
- But the backup QB for Clemson, DJ Uiagalelei, was no slouch. This was his statline in that game:
- By no means am I saying DJ is as good as Trevor Lawrence. Clemson is able to do more on offense and really open up the full playbook with the more experienced Lawrence, and that’s not something that really shows up in the statline But from a bottom-line perspective, it really doesn’t get much better than what DJ did in terms of quarterback production. That is an absolutely phenomenal statline. Those are Trevor Lawrence-esque passing numbers. You can blame Clemson’s loss on them not having Trevor Lawrence all you want, but DJ was not the reason Clemson lost.
- Yes, he did take two big sacks in the second OT that ultimately led to Clemson losing, but from what I saw that was mostly a result of the playcalls and Clemson’s offensive linemen just getting beaten. And Clemson was only 4/15 on third down in the game, so you assume they’ll be better on third down with Lawrence. Plus, Lawrence is a really underrated runner. Ohio State fans know this full well. That’s a layer of their offense that Clemson was missing with DJ in the game.
- But still, give him credit–DJ had a better passing statline than Ian Book did:
- However, Book still had a really good night throwing the ball.
The reason Clemson lost was because they couldn’t stop the run, and they couldn’t run the ball. Look at this massive rushing disparity:
Clemson had 33 carries for 34 yards, while Notre Dame had 40 carries for 208 yards.
You can argue that Clemson was really bad running the ball because Notre Dame loaded up the box and sold out against the run, daring the true freshman QB DJ to beat them, which in turn allowed DJ to have a huge game through the air.
But it doesn’t explain Notre Dame absolutely thrashing Clemson’s defense for 208 rushing yards and 5.2 yards per carry. Again: Trevor Lawrence doesn’t play defense. Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams had a 65-yard rushing TD on the first play of the game.
Now, excluding that one play, Clemson only allowed Notre Dame to get 3.6 YPC on all their other carries. So they weren’t as bad against the run as the statline shows. But they still let that 65-yard run happen.
Perhaps more concerning was Clemson’s complete inability to run the ball. It’s not as if they abandoned the run early in the game. They ran it 33 times and were continually stonewalled. 33 rushing attempts is a lot of rushing attempts.
A team of Clemson’s caliber, and with an elite RB like Travis Etienne, should never be held to 34 rushing yards on 33 carries. They should be able to run on anybody and everybody. Bama’s run game would never get shut down like that.
Here’s another issue: Clemson only sacked Book twice in that game. Notre Dame was able to protect the QB against Clemson’s pass rush. Notre Dame had 2 sacks on DJ in the game, so it was a wash in that department.
Clemson had 4 QB hurries in the game, Notre Dame also had 4 QB hurries in the game.
The telltale sign of a lopsided matchup in college football is who wins the battle at the line. Normally teams like Bama, Clemson and Ohio State push everybody around up front. They rarely ever play teams that have offensive and defensive lines that can compete with theirs.
But Notre Dame was not pushed around up front in that game.
If anything, it was Notre Dame’s offensive and defensive lines doing the pushing-around.
Look, I think Trevor Lawrence’s presence makes a huge difference for Clemson. I think Clemson should be favored to win the game. And I think Clemson is probably going to win the game.
But I think it’s disrespectful to Notre Dame to dismiss what they did in that first game a little more than a month ago as simply a product of Clemson not having Trevor Lawrence.
Notre Dame is a legit team and they can compete with Clemson. It doesn’t mean they’re going to win the game, but I think it’s wrong to just assume their first victory over Clemson was a fluke.