The Notre Dame Fighting Irish take on the Clemson Tigers in the Cotton Bowl, the first game of the College Football Playoff. The game, which kicks off at 4PM ET on December 29th, decides who will meet the winner of the Orange Bowl in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
Clemson is currently a healthy favorite, listed as an 11 or 12-point favorite in most books. The Tigers have dominated a decent schedule, and the betting market is wary of Notre Dame’s credentials. Beating up a schedule of ailing bluebloods doesn’t prove much.
Clemson is Truly Elite
Perhaps the best way of measuring Clemson is pointing to a player that’s leaving the program: Kelly Bryant. Bryant was 18-2 as the starting quarterback of the Clemson Tigers, led the program to an ACC Championship and the College Football Playoff, was a preseason Heisman Trophy contender, and is now transferring to Missouri. Bryant is an exceptionally talented player, and was an exceptionally good Clemson quarterback, but was benched after week 4 for true freshman Trevor Lawrence. Good, but not quite good enough.
The decision to start Lawrence might have been a good one. He’s completed 64.6% of his passes this season for 2,606 yards and 24 touchdowns. He’s a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy next year. He might be a once-in-a-generation passer, and it makes sense to get as much use out of him as possible.
He’s not the only mercurial talent on this team. Travis Etienne gained 1,529 yards from scrimmage and rushed for 21 touchdowns, averaging an outstanding 8.3 yards per carry. The entire defensive line might go in the first round of the NFL draft. Clelin Ferrell racked up 11 sacks this year. Dexter Lawrence is is 6’5 and 340 pounds of beefy athleticism. Austin Bryant has 15 sacks in the last two seasons. Christian Wilkins can feasibly play safety.
“Coach, he’s playing safety.”
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) May 31, 2018
As a whole, the team gained 530.8 yards per game and scored 45.4 points per game. It remains to be seen how they’ll measure up to top competition, but there’s probably only one team in the country that matches Clemson in terms of talent.
Notre Dame Might Have What it Takes
Notre Dame doesn’t have the same talent to draw on as their opponent. A good example of this is their quarterback, Ian Book, who threw for 2,468 yards and 19 TD’s this season. Book was a three-star recruit coming out of high-school, the only quarterback in the Playoff who wasn’t at least a four-star. Book completed 70.4% of his passes, and was more or less as efficient as you’d like, but isn’t quite the lightning rod other teams have under centre.
Maybe Book won’t have to be a star. Notre Dame features one of the strongest offensive lines in the country, and perhaps it’s testament to the O-line’s strength that a former three-star can perform well and win games at the highest level. Running back Dexter Williams ran for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging an astounding 6.6 yards per carry. If Notre Dame is to get anywhere in the game, it’ll have to be by establishing the run game against Clemson’s titanic front seven.
Sophomore Dexter Williams scores on a 13-yard run. pic.twitter.com/HmBhCk2KU4
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) September 24, 2016
They’ll also need the defense to hold up. Clemson can score points however you want them to, so Notre Dame will have to bring a balanced, complete defense to have any hope of winning this game. They’ve been stellar so far this season, perhaps slightly better against the pass than against the run, and do a great job preventing big plays.
Clemson vs Notre Dame Statistical Comparison
|45.2 (3rd)||PPG||33.8 (25th)|
|529.8 (4th)||YPG||456.4 (22nd)|
|260.7 (8th)||Rushing YPG||190.8 (44th)|
|269.1 (26th)||Passing YPG||265.6 (27th)|
|14.2 (3rd)||PPG Allowed||17.2 (9th)|
Both teams play tight defense, so bettors will be tempted to take the under. The under is a combined 13-12 in games featuring these two teams, which is somewhat disappointing. The over/under of this game is set at 55.
The line on this game is pretty aggressive, considering that these are both great teams. Blowouts do happen in the College Football Playoff, and Clemson is great at handing them out, but it might make sense to take the points and hope for a tight, defensive game.