Believe it or not, folks, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team still has at least one game remaining in the 2018-2019 season.
This Saturday, the Irish will square off against the #2 Clemson Tigers in the Cotton Bowl, with the winner getting a bid to play in the National Championship on January 7th against probably the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Clemson has been similar to ND this season in terms of running the table but having played against a pretty easy schedule, but the Tigers have faced even lesser competition but looked even more dominant.
With that said, neither Cotton Bowl team has seen an opponent this season as good as the other team in this one, so in order to get more info on the powerhouse that is Clemson and how this year’s squad matches up with the Irish, I spoke to Ryan Kantor, an editor over at Shakin the Southland, to get his perspective on the Tigers, the Irish, and a WHOLE LOT more.
Let’s dive into the awesome responses Ryan put together for me and prepare ourselves for what should be an extremely fun Cotton Bowl.
1. With Clemson having been so dominant most of the year and having seen that Alabama is beatable in their narrow win over Georgia in the SEC Championship, what’s your confidence level entering the CFP — what do you think is the likelihood of the Tigers winning it all again? How much of a chance do you think Notre Dame has to pull the upset?
Ryan Kantor: At the outset of the season, I picked Clemson to reach the National Title Game before falling to Alabama. That’s looking pretty accurate right now.
I think the Tigers have about a four-in-five chance to advance and then maybe a two-in-five chance to beat Alabama with a healthy Tua Tagovailoa (obviously those odds are better if he is banged up or if we play Oklahoma).
2. Dabo is beloved among Clemson fans (I’m assuming), and rightfully so based on his record since taking over (114-30), having made 4 of 5 CFPs, and of course winning a title. How was he able to turn the Tigers program into such a power, and what makes him such a great coach?
Ryan Kantor: One of the main things he had to do was change the culture, and he was the perfect man to do that. He had to convince the players that they had what it takes to pull out the tough games. They had to believe they weren’t going to blow it.
All those catchy slogans like “to be an overachiever, you have to be an over-believer,” had a purpose behind them and they were all part of his effort to get the team to buy into the team goals and into themselves. Once he had that, they started winning more, and with the winning they started getting better recruits and the cycle began.
The other major aspect was bringing in elite assistants. Upon being hired, he immediately dismissed OC Rob Spence and put Billy Napier in place (now the Head Coach at Louisiana). They didn’t mesh, so he hired Chad Morris from Tulsa. That set the template for the high-flying offense. He ensured Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott were learning and the duo was ready to roll when Chad Morris (now at Arkansas) left for SMU.
On defense, he switched from Vic Koenning to Kevin Steele. Steele didn’t mesh well and was dismissed after the 2011 season that ended in the Orange Bowl debacle (he is having great success at Auburn now, though). Dabo then made an amazing hire by plucking away DC Brent Venables from Oklahoma.
He has also ensured the workplace is family friendly and respects work-life balance (as much as feasible in this profession) and pushed the athletic department to pony up for big assistant salaries. As a result, assistants want to stay and he gets great continuity from season to season.
Those are just some of the big reasons Clemson’s program has sky rocketed over the past decade under Coach Swinney.
3. Do you think Dabo will be at Clemson until he’s ready to retire, or is there potentially some accuracy to the rumor that’s been around forever now about him taking over at Alabama once Nick Saban hangs ‘em up?
Ryan Kantor: I don’t think Coach Swinney will leave Clemson to immediately follow Coach Saban. It just seems like a no-win situation for him.
I could see him leaving if the coach that follows Saban fails and things have gotten stale at Clemson or the fans are acting ungrateful and he isn’t enjoying the process anymore. I would really be shocked if he left Clemson within five years to take over the dynasty in Tuscaloosa where expectations are even higher. As mentioned, he is pretty beloved in Clemson.
4. Trevor Lawrence is obviously still super young and developing, but he’s also already one of the best QBs in the country as a true freshman. What does he do well, what are his weaknesses, and how can the Notre Dame defense take him out of his game?
Ryan Kantor: Lawrence has a very strong arm and isn’t scared to use it. Conversely, QB Kelly Bryant was flashy with his foot speed and willingness to run between the tackles, but was a conservative passer and had a relatively slow release with modest ball speed.
Lawrence uses his quick release with elite ball speed to hit out routes to the opposite hash and sneak passes over the middle through tight windows. He can attack all parts of the field and is an underrated runner too. It’s the ability to hit all of those throws, when coupled with a solid Clemson ground game, that makes this offense so hard to defend.
This may sound cliché, but I think the recipe for trying to slow Clemson down is to bring pressure. We will discuss the reason for that a few questions down, but I think if you give him time, he can make the throws into the small windows that inevitably open up. Our offensive line is good, but it is not statistically elite.
5. Clemson’s got a strong running game, led by Travis Etienne, who had a fantastic season. What makes this Tiger rushing attack so good, and how do you think the line/backfield will hold up against a solid ND front seven?
Ryan Kantor: This is where I think Clemson could potentially be overrated. The Tigers average 6.8 YPC and it’s a thing of beauty when Travis Etienne breaks a tackle and accelerates like an IndyCar.
When you look closer, though, a lot of those numbers were put up against poor rushing defenses. Notre Dame ranks 18th in S&P+ rush defense. Clemson has only played three top 30 rush defenses, according to S&P+. Those teams are Texas A&M (14th), NC State (24th), and Florida State (30th). Against those three teams, Clemson averaged only 3.4 YPC.
This is a real concern against Notre Dame. On the flip-side, Clemson torched those three teams for an average of 361 passing yards in those three contests. That includes 380 and 404 against NC State and FSU, respectively — the two which Trevor Lawrence started.
6. How has the Clemson offensive line handled good d-lines in pass protection this year? Do you think they’ll struggle at all with the ND pass rush, or do you think ND will really have to sell out with blitzes (not a usual thing for Clark Lea’s defense) to get pressure on Lawrence?
Ryan Kantor: Clemson’s offensive line ranks 16th in sack rate allowed. Notre Dame’s defense ranks 37th with 2.58 sacks per game. This is actually an area where Clemson should have a solid advantage.
They’ve played three teams with more sacks than Notre Dame (Syracuse: 8th, Texas A&M: T-15th, NC State: T-15th, Boston College: T-26th). Boston College’s Zach Allen wreaked havoc on our line, but NC State didn’t do anything. Syracuse is hard to judge given the weird game flow with a backup QB. I don’t think Notre Dame has an edge rusher like Zach Allen that will give Clemson’s O-line fits.
Couple this with what we talked about in the previous question regarding the rushing attack and I think we may see Trevor Lawrence carrying a sizable share of the offensive load.
7. Clemson’s got what most would say is the best defense in the country. We know the defensive line is basically an NFL d-line and there’s plenty of talent and speed in the linebackers/secondary, but what relative weaknesses has the Clemson defense shown at times this year that the ND offense should try to exploit?
Ryan Kantor: It’s all relative, but I suspect Brian Kelly will try to attack Clemson’s defense over-the-middle with both intermediate and deep routes. TE Alizé Mack can play a big role in that attack.
The Gamecocks star player, WR Deebo Samuel, reeled in 210 receiving yards in the Tigers’ worst performance of the season. I wouldn’t expect such fortunes in a contest as big as the Cotton Bowl, but the recipe is there.
I expect DC Brent Venables will adjust to avoid similar mistakes, but deep post routes with shorter plays to the TE that take advantage of linebackers coming up in run support or blitzing seems like the first plan of attack Notre Dame would want to try.
8. Clemson’s special teams are ranked very low by most efficiency metrics — is this an actual weakness ND can exploit with their own decidedly mediocre special teams, or will this be a non-factor since Clemson is so strong on offense and defense?
Ryan Kantor: Clemson’s FG kicking has been so-so this season. Greg Huegel returned from an ACL tear, but hasn’t totally regained his groove, going just 9/13 on the season.
The punting has been a clear weakness as starter Will Spiers has averaged only 39.4 yards per punt. If this becomes a defensive struggle, it is an area where Notre Dame has a real and legitimate advantage.
9. Looking at this ND team, which players, if any, scare you the most?
Ryan Kantor: I think the combination of WR Miles Boykin and TE Alize Mack using their height (6’4” and 6’5” respectively) to attack Clemson over the middle would be of concern to any opponent.
Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery has an impressive 7 sacks from the DT position. The Tigers have been good in pass protection, but we saw Boston College slow the Tigers’ passing attack for a bit with a good pass rush. If Tillery and the Notre Dame D-line can pressure Lawrence, it’ll go a long way in earning the upset, as getting the passing game going against such a good run defense will be critical.
WE INTERRUPT THIS VERY GOOD Q&A FOR SOMETHING INCREDIBLY STUPID: TIME FOR A WORD FROM PAT’S PERSONAL PANEL OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL FANS, AKA SOME BUDDIES OF HIS IN A GROUPME CHAT!!!!
Pat Rick: Y’all, I need you to chime in with your thoughts on Clemson. Q&A article going up on Wednesday morning.
Hux: I’ll say it. Clemson shouldn’t even be in this game. They really lost to A&M (I was there in the monsoon), but the zebras blew it with one of the worst calls of all-time. Fumbled at the 1. Should NOT have been a touchback.
P.S. Kelly Bryant says GO IRISH
Prison Mike: Hooooo boy
Hux: How dumb can you be?!? A week before the biggest game of your year
*Conversation devolved into Colts-Titans talk from there*
Aaaaaand that was another wonderful, insightful analysis from my Personal Panel of College Football Fans...cool! Okay, now back to the regularly scheduled interview with Mr. Kantor.
10. Notre Dame has a freshman RB named C’Borius Flemister. What are the best/funniest/most ridiculous names on the Clemson roster, and do any of them measure up to my guy C’Bo?
Ryan Kantor: Does anything really top “Dabo,” short for “Dat boy”?
11. Hypothetical: You’re Santa Claus, and you/your reindeer are all on the injured list. Also, your elves are on strike. Christmas is a week away. Which current Clemson football players do you recruit to help you finish making toys, load and pull the sleigh, and climb down chimneys to deliver presents to the children of the world? Please give clear roles and explanations why you chose who you chose.
Ryan Kantor: WR Hunter Renfrow is making the toys because he is so precise and reliable — you know they’ll be good quality toys.
Dexter Lawrence is pulling the sleigh. If he can push opposing centers and guards back, he’ll get that sleigh moving.
DT Christian Wilkins is delivering presents (assuming he fits down chimneys). The young man is full of laughter. He was a substitute teacher during the offseason. The kids would love him!
12. Karaoke battle between Brian Kelly and Dabo Swinney - what song(s) does each coach sing, who has the better stage presence and charisma (I can answer this for you — it’s Dabo), and who ultimately wins?
Ryan Kantor: Sticking with the Christmas theme, Brian Kelly would give us a beautiful rendition of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” because obviously…Notre Dame, right?
Coach Swinney would sing “Joy to the World.” The man oozes with the genuine joy to sing that song just right.
As to who would win? C’mon. You tell me.
You have been visited by Cowboy Dabo. He brings you yeehaw luck. pic.twitter.com/h2xu75nVsV— J (@jeremymsmalls) December 3, 2018
13. If Dabo knocked on your door the day before the Cotton Bowl and told you that you were starting in the game, but you get to choose what position you play, what position would you pick, what would your stats be, and how would it affect the outcome of the game?
Ryan Kantor: I’d be the punter, because it would fun to watch them go for it on 4th down every time.
14. Prediction time: give me the final score, who wins, and your reasoning why.
Ryan Kantor: Clemson’s three lowest scoring games of the season have been 27, 27 and 28 points. One of those features Kelly Bryant at QB for the majority of the game and another featured Chase Brice.
I’ve been a Notre Dame believer all season. I think they’re very good and extremely deserving to make the playoff. I particularly like their defense and think it is good enough to hold Clemson to something in the 28-31 range, but I’m not sure their offense will eclipse 21 points in what I expect to be a close game, but a Tiger win nonetheless.
Clemson 28, Notre Dame 17
I wanna give a HUGE shout-out to Ryan for answering my laundry list of questions — for context, Ryan asked me about half the number of questions for my Q&A on their site — with some fantastic info and insights on Clemson and how they match up with ND.
I encourage all of you to head on over to Shakin The Southland to check out all the great content they’ve got going on over there, and highly recommend you follow the site — as well as my guy Ryan — on Twitter for any and all hard-hitting Clemson updates heading into Saturday’s game.
Finally, my usual thanks go out to my Personal Panel of College Football Fans, AKA Hux and Serglock Holmes and Prison Mike, for the undeniably useful pregame analysis they provided once again. Bravo!
That’s all for today, folks — see you all in my game preview on Friday!