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Notre Dame Football in the College Football Playoff: Clemson Tigers Cotton Bowl Preview

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Pat Rick looks at how the #2 and #3 teams match up, power ranks “tigers,” provides all the dancing Dabo content you could want, and gives his gut-driven prediction despite his brain’s best objections

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Clemson vs Pittsburgh Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Ladies and gentlemen, in case you were somehow completely ignorant as to what’s transpired this year in Notre Dame Fighting Irish football, let me hit you with a little reminder: ND is playing in the College Football Freakin’ Playoff tomorrow afternoon.

Your #3, 12-0 Irish will be squaring off against the #2, 13-0 12-0 (sorry Furman, you don’t count here) Clemson Tigers in the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The two teams will kickoff at 4 PM ET on ESPN.

Clemson, as you probably know, is participating in its 4th-straight College Football Playoff this year, and the Tigers have had solid success in the past three appearances, making the title game in 2016 and winning it in 2017.

The Irish, as you hopefully, definitely know, are playing in their first College Football Playoff, having not had a season with 2 losses or fewer since 2012-2013, when they also went 12-0 in the regular season before getting stomped in the BCS National Championship by the Alabama Crimson Tide (the program that the winner of this game will most likely face in the National Championship on January 7th). Sorry for bringing that up, ND fans.

Both squads in this one have scored well in advanced metrics this season, with Clemson sitting at #2 in the S&P+ overall rankings and #3 in ESPN.com’s overall efficiency rankings, while Notre Dame is #6 in both. The Tigers, though, are favored by essentially two touchdowns, even after the news broke that All-American junior DT Dexter Lawrence will miss the game due to testing positive for the illegal performance-enhancing drug ostarine (along with freshman TE Braden Galloway and reserve OL Zach Giella).

So, with all that said, how does our beloved Irish squad match up with the most successful non-Alabama program of the past 5 years? Let’s dive into the details and see how these two teams stack up in what should be a very exciting semifinal game.

Clemson Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense

The Clemson Tigers are known for their top-notch defense, but their offense has been nearly as effective throughout the 2018 season. Ranked 7th in S&P+ and 4th in offensive efficiency, the Tigers boast a running game that has GASHED mostly bad defenses for big chunks of yardage, as well as a passing game that has been very good despite being led by a true freshman quarterback.

Let’s start with the running game, which led the country this season in yards per carry with 6.8 yards per attempt. This effort was led by sophomore RB Travis Etienne, who ran for 1,463 yards and 21 TD at an 8.3 yards-per-carry clip this year. Etienne is a 5’10”, 200-pound back out of Louisiana who has a fantastic combination of strength, balance, and speed to break away for a home run TD when he gets to the second level of the defense.

The key here will be the Notre Dame front seven fighting off blocks and gang tackling Etienne to prevent him from getting to the next level. The Irish have only given up 3.7 yards per carry this season, and that’s with a game against Navy on the schedule, so it’s not crazy to think that Drue Tranquill (75 tackles, 9 TFL, 3.5 sacks) and Te’von Coney (107 tackles, 9 TFL, 3.5 sacks) and the rest of the ND front seven can swarm to the ball after fighting off a good-but-not-great Clemson offensive line to slow Etienne down a bit.

One worry for the Irish, though, should be that Etienne is not the only talented back at Clemson’s disposal. Freshmen Lyn-J Dixon (536 yards, 5 TD) and Adam Choice (506 yards, 7 TD) have run for 9.6 and 7.4 yards per carry this season, respectively, and Tavien Feaster is back there as a fourth option running at a paltry 5.8 yards per carry, having picked up 409 yards and 6 TD himself this season.

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Clemson vs Pittsburgh Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

So, it will be absolutely key for the Irish front four to be involved in making stops against the run and in not letting ball carriers get past them, as the Tigers will look to wear down the ND defense by throwing talented back after talented back at them, hoping that at some point one of those guys will break loose for a huge, momentum-swinging run.

Jerry Tillery (30 tackles, 10.5 TFL) will obviously play a key role there, as will the play of 5th-year senior Jonathan Bonner (19 tackles) and reserves Kurt Hinish (12 tackles, 2 TFL, 1.5 sacks) and Jayson Ademilola (17 tackles). The return of sophomore Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa is a nice piece of depth being added to that group as well, and although he may not get a TON of reps upon his return, he will bring some fresh legs and some more proven, experienced strength in the middle — he was quoted recently as saying he is 100% and ready to go.

That extra depth could especially be necessary on the goal line, where Clemson likes to slot in its defensive tackle stalwarts to carry the ball in short-yardage situations as part of their “Fridge Package.” Dexter Lawrence will be out, obviously, but Christian Wilkins has some experience with this as well, so we could see some serious clashes of power and heft if Clemson has any goal line running situations come up and want to unleash Wilkins on the ND defense.

If the Irish are able to slow down Etienne and co. (which HAS to be defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s main strategy going into this game), then the Tigers will be forced to rely on true freshman QB Trevor Lawrence to distribute the ball successfully and efficiently to the bevy of talented receivers Clemson has at their disposal.

Lawrence has been fantastic for a true frosh running a big-time program’s offense, throwing for 2,606 yards, 24 TDs, and just 4 INT while completing 65% of his passes. He completely took over for incumbent starter Kelly Bryant prior to the 5th game of the season against Syracuse, and after being knocked out of that game with an injury, has since looked great at the helm of things, allowing the Tigers to finish the season in the top 30 in passing offense and 5th in scoring.

Not to minimize what has been a great first season for Lawrence, but of course it helps a freshman QB when he has a group of fantastic receivers to target. 6’4” sophomore Tee Higgins is the best of the bunch, having hauled in 52 balls for 802 yards and 10 touchdowns this year, providing a long, athletic target for Lawrence to rely on.

He’s joined by guys that are equally as physically gifted like 6’4” freshman Justyn Ross (34 rec, 699 yards, 6 TD), speedy 5’9” sophomore Amari Rodgers (47 rec, 519 yards, 4 TD), and former walk-on turned 2017 national championship hero Hunter Renfrow, who is about as reliable as they come in the slot with 43 catches for 472 yards and a touchdown of his own. Factor in Etienne and the other backs potentially causing issues in the flat/over the middle, and Clemson certainly has the receiver talent to do some serious damage if the ND secondary and linebackers don’t come prepared.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

This will almost certainly be the best group of receivers the Irish secondary has seen this year, but the Tigers also haven’t faced a pass defense as good as ND’s, which finished the season #3 in the country in pass efficiency defense.

The ND secondary is led by consensus All-American cornerback Julian Love (61 tackles, 15 PBU, 1 INT, 1 FR TD), who will have his hands full with the big, talented receivers Clemson will throw at him. Luckily, he’s handled talented, bigger receivers previously this season (e.g. JJ Arcega-Whiteside of Stanford), so that should actually be a matchup he can handle pretty well.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The rest of the ND secondary should be interesting to watch. Troy Pride Jr. (45 tackles, 9 PBU, 1 FF, 2 INT) had his ups and downs all year at the other corner spot, and will need to bring his A-game and all the track speed he has in covering both Clemson’s bigger receivers and in trying to handle Amari Rodgers and the quickness he brings to the table.

Alohi Gilman (76 tackles, 3 TFL, 3 PBU, 2 FF, 2 INT) will likely be his normal flyin’ Hawaiian self at safety and be all over the field making plays, and Jalen Elliott, who I have constantly noted as a potential weakness waiting to be exposed, has instead been solid the entire season (63 tackles, 6 PBU, 4 INT), so I feel good about his ability to make plays in coverage against a frosh QB.

NCAA Football: Ball State at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Another big factor here will be senior Nick Coleman (14 tackles, 4 PBU, 1 INT) and how he plays as the nickelback, considering the position has been up and down this year before Coleman took it over for good late in the season. If he’s able to perform well there, it will mean great things for the secondary and for the defense overall.

The bigger key than the secondary, of course, will be if the ND front four can get pressure on Lawrence. As talented as the Irish DBs are, they cannot blanket receivers as good as Clemson’s forever.

The junior trio of Julian Okwara (11.5 TFL, 7 sacks, 21 QBH), Khalid Kareem (10 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 8 QBH, 5 PBU), and Daelin Hayes (4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 6 QBH) will need to be ferocious and relentless in their pursuit of Lawrence, who is similar to Ian Book in that he is fairly athletic and can scramble out of trouble a bit, but also can be forced into making some bad throws if you keep getting in his face. Jerry Tillery (10.5 TFL, 8 sacks, 5 QBH, 3 FF) will also be huge here, as his ability to collapse the pocket from the middle will be necessary to flush Lawrence out on the run and hopefully into the waiting arms of Okwara and Kareem.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Notre Dame Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

This match-up could be where the game is ultimately decided, especially considering how good the Clemson defense is (even without Lawrence). The ND offense won’t be shut out, but they also likely won’t score in bunches, meaning it will be up to the Irish’s strength, their defense, to keep them in the game.

I think a lot of pundits are not taking into account how good this Irish defense has been, and is (#4 in S&P+, #11 in defensive efficiency, #9 in scoring), and that ND has the unit, and the coaching with Clark Lea, to not necessarily shut down Clemson’s high-powered offense, but to slow it down, limit its time of possession, and force it to rely less on its running game.

Offensive Tiger to Watch

QB Trevor Lawrence

I almost went with Tee Higgins or Travis Etienne here, but I think ultimately what will determine Clemson’s offensive success is how effective Trevor Lawrence can be through the air. If he’s able to sit in the pocket and pick apart the ND secondary, it will open things up for the Tiger running game and spell doom for the Irish.

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Clemson vs Pittsburgh Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Irish to Watch

DE Julian Okwara

I think more than anything, the Irish defense will need some big plays to make up for lessened offensive production against the Clemson defense. So, someone has to get to Trevor Lawrence and either hit him or force him to rush some throws downfield that the Irish DBs can hopefully pick off. I think Julian Okwara is the most dangerous and underrated player on the ND defense, and so if he’s able to have a big game, the rest of the defense will reap the rewards.

Ball State v Notre Dame

Halftime Fun Facts!!!!!

Best Names in the Game

1. Notre Dame RB C’Borius Flemister

2. Clemson HC Dabo Swinney

3. Notre Dame TE Tommy Tremble

4. Clemson RB Tavien Feaster

5. Clemson TE Cannon Smith

6. Clemson RB Lyn-J Dixon

7. Notre Dame LB Ovie Oghoufo

8. Clemson LB Baylon Spector

9. Notre Dame DE Adetokunbo Ogundeji

10. Clemson DB K’Von Wallace

11. Clemson OT Tremayne Anchrum

12. Notre Dame LB Asmar Bilal

13. Clemson LB Mike Jones Jr.

14. Clemson LS Patrick Phibbs

15. Clemson S Tanner Muse

Quick Power Ranking: Tigers

1. Sabertooth Tiger (Power Rangers)

2. Hobbes from Calvin and Hobbes

3. Mike the Tiger (LSU mascot) — having a live tiger as a mascot is amazing, reminds me of The Prince of Tides, and also how great is it that they have this exotic Bengal tiger as their mascot and they chose “Mike” as the name for it???

4. “Catch a tiger by the toe (eeny, meeny, miny, moe)” — just a great way to choose things/make decisions

5. “Eye of the Tiger” (song)

6. Weretiger - Apparently, like a werewolf, in Asia there is legend of weretigers...and that seems pretty badass

7. Diego (sabertooth tiger in Ice Age) — I enjoyed when he would make fun of/harass/threaten to eat the annoying sloth

8. Kumal and Sangha (two separated and reunited tigers in the 2004 film Two Brothers)I’ve never seen this movie, but it just seems like an adorable, heartfelt story

9. Tiger Temple (Buddhist temple in Thailand famous for its tame tigers) — seems really cool

10. Sabertooth Tiger (extinct mammal) — bad ass that these used to exist

11. Shere Khan (The Jungle Book) — he was evil, but damnit if I didn’t respect him for being the toughest boss to beat in the Sega Genesis Jungle Book game

12. The Esso (Exxon) brand of petrol was advertised from 1969 onwards with the slogan ‘put a tiger in your tank’ — this is an unreal slogan, it deserves this spot

T-13. Bengal tiger (animal) and Siberian tiger (animal) — tigers are neat

15. Tony the Tiger — I honestly don’t really like Tony but Frosted Flakes are good so he gets this spot

16. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — Never seen this movie but it seems dope

17. Siegfried and Roy’s tiger — tough look for my guy Roy when one of their tigers finally attacked him

18. LSU Tigers — Any team coached by Coach O deserves decent recognition

19. Clemson Tigers — I really do like Clemson, they’re better than most other Tigers in my eyes and anyone who has Dabo leading you gets my love

20. Cincinnati Bengals

21. Depauw Tigers — shoutout to a local Indiana school!!!

22. Hamilton Tiger-Cats — shout out the CFL

23. Auburn Tigers — the below video + call NEVER gets old

24. Towson Tigers — sure

25. Princeton Tigers — nerds

26. Master Tigress in Kung Fu Panda — just wanted an excuse to show the “noodles, don’t noodles” part from that movie, which is gold

27. Shiva, the tiger in The Walking Dead — I liked this tiger but it was somehow killed by like 15 zombies, which is garbage...it was a huge, killer cat and those were a bunch of slow, rotting corpses...the tiger should have destroyed them

28. Memphis Tigers

29. Missouri Tigers

30. Pacific Tigers

31. All the other sabertooth tigers in Ice Age — kinda seemed like dicks, and they were obsessed with eating a tiny human instead of focusing on more substantial food

32. Tiger Lily (Peter Pan)

33. Tiger Lily (Rupert)

34. The tiger in The Life of Pi — I’ve never seen this movie but I understand this tiger’s name is “Richard Parker” and that seems stupid

35. Detroit Tigers — they stink

36. Paws (Detroit Tigers mascot) — mascot of a team who stinks

37. “Have a tiger by the tail” — seems like a dumb expression, considering to have a tiger by the tail probably means the tiger is going to kill you in just a second

38. “Paper tiger” — this phrase should be used more often, but ultimately means something is not actually good and so I will rank it low

39. Tiger Woods — he’s a bad person and I hate the sport of golf, so unlike a lot of the rest of you I have no reason to rank him higher than this

40. Tigger from Winnie the Pooh — Annoying as hell. We get it, you’re a hyperactive tiger. Shut up already.

Time for a Bunch of Videos of Dabo Dancing, Because He’s Awesome and I Love Him and You Should Too

Let’s Play a Quick and Fun Game — Name the Most Random Former Clemson Player You Can Think Of

Woody Dantzler!!!

Leave your own random Clemson player in the comments please!

Clemson...Clems Son...Clem’s Son...Who is Clem’s Son???

Guys, something no one has ever explained to me is whom Clemson University and Clemson, South Carolina are named after.

Looking at the name “Clemson,” it’s clearly a specific person, and even more clear is the fact that that person is a man whose father was named “Clem.”

But what Clem, and which son of his???

To try to figure it out, I quickly looked up “famous people named Clem” and found WAY more famous Clems than I thought could have possibly existed. Examples include:

  • Clem Clemens, who was a major league catcher from 1914-1916
  • Clem Crowe, who played football and basketball at Notre Dame (was an All-American in both) in the 1920s before his career as a football coach took him to Xavier and Iowa
  • Clem Daniels, all-time AFL rushing leader and also NFL player
  • Clem Haskins, who was one of two black players to integrate the Western Kentucky basketball program
  • A whole bunch of Australian rules footballers
  • Clement Attlee, who was Prime Minister of the UK from 1945 to 1951
  • Clem McSpadden, a politician from Oklahoma who had an awesome name
  • Clem Smith, current member of the Missouri House of Representatives
  • Clem Burke, drummer for the band Blondie
  • Clem Bevans, an American character actor known for playing grumpy old men
  • Clem Tholet, a Rhodesian folk singer
  • Clem Schouwenaars, a Belgian writer
  • Steve “Clem” Grogan, a convicted murderer and former member of the Manson family
  • Clem Sohn, an American airshow daredevil
  • John Clem, a United States Army General who also served as a Union army drummer boy in the Civil War
  • Mitch Clem, an American cartoonist

I’ll be honest, folks, I have no idea who on this list it could be, or if it’s someone else from the Wikipedia list of Clems whom I didn’t choose to feature in that long, bulleted list of Clems I just made you read.

If I had to guess, I’d go with John Clem, since he was around during the Civil War and Clemson was founded in 1889. The timing could technically work for him, which is an advantage over many of the guys in the list who were not born yet when Clemson was founded and named.

Plus, John Clem was a drummer boy in the Civil War, and given it was just Christmas a few days ago, I’m feeling festive and think the little drummer boy who became an Army General should be considered the father of Clemson’s namesake.

Unfortunately, John Clem’s Wikipedia page only says that he had 3 kids and does not specify if any of them were Clem’s son, and thus the person for whom Clemson was definitely named.

If anyone wants to sound off in the comments with their own theories or with any information on Clem’s Son, please do so. I’m mildly interested. I will NOT, however, be accepting any actual facts on the matter. I don’t wanna hear about some loser whose last name was Clemson that the school was named after. That’s dumb and I don’t care about that.

Anyway, let’s get back to the boring football part of the preview...

Notre Dame Offense vs. Clemson Defense

Whereas I think the game will be decided in the matchup of Clemson’s offense against Notre Dame’s defense, the matchup of Chip Long’s Notre Dame offense against the best defense in the country, run by Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, might actually be more interesting.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame’s offense was good this season, finishing the year 26th in S&P+, 19th in offensive efficiency, and 28th in total offense (this is obviously not taking into account the 3 games Book did not start, where the offense produced significantly less).

Clemson’s defense, meanwhile, comes into this game rated #1 in S&P+ and in defensive efficiency, #2 in scoring defense, and #4 in the country in total defense (18th in pass defense, 3rd in rushing defense).

Those ridiculous statistical ranks come largely from the Tigers’ defensive line, which is simply unfair in terms of the talent, size, and speed it brings to the table. Starting DT Dexter Lawrence is a massive loss in terms of both heft and skill (the dude is 350 pounds and had 37 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, and 7 QBH this season), but the fact that Clemson still has Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, and Austin Bryant is ridiculous.

Wilkins and Ferrell are the two who’ve gotten the most love from the media this season, and rightfully so. Ferrell has been a menace rushing the passer and just in getting upfield in general, accumulating 17.5 TFL and 10.5 sacks this year. Wilkins has been pretty impressive himself, what with his 13 TFL, 5 sacks, and 6 QBH this year. The two of them have combined for 92 tackles.

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Clemson vs Pittsburgh Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Austin Bryant is often the guy people fail to mention, but he’s equally as impressive as Ferrell and Wilkins in terms of what he’s able to do in the backfield — he’s managed to come up with 34 tackles (10.5 for loss), 6 sacks, and 4 QB hurries.

Replacing Lawrence will be a couple guys who have solid talent and great size, if not a ton of big-game, starter-level experience like Lawrence had: sophomore Nyles Pinckney (21 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 FF, 1 FR) and senior Albert Huggins (17 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks). Those two are nowhere near the test that Lawrence would have been for ND center Sam Mustipher and his OG teammates Aaron Banks and Tommy Kraemer, but they’re still huge, talented guys who will be tough to move.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Florida State Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

Add to all those guys a young defensive end like freshman Xavier Thomas (29 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3 sacks), and this Clemson defensive line is still VERY intimidating without Dexter Lawrence.

The Fighting Irish offensive line has been good, but not always consistent, in 2018, which was to be expected after having lost Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey to the NFL. Nevertheless, it will be crucial that Chip Long and his squad try to have some success, even if it’s marginal, on the ground in this game, so as to keep pressure off of Ian Book to have to carry the entire offense with his arm.

That effort will of course involve Dexter Williams, who has been sensational in his senior season after missing the first four games due to a suspension. In 8 games, Dex ran for 941 yards (that’s 118 per game for all of you scoring at home) and 12 touchdowns while picking up 6.6 yards per carry. Obviously those are not Clemson-level numbers and it wasn’t against the best rush defense in the country (Clemson), but Williams is strong and fast enough to hopefully find a little wiggle room to pick up some yardage on the ground against the Tigers.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Along with Williams, look for Tony Jones Jr. (392 yards, 4.7 ypc, 3 TD) and Jafar Armstrong (377 yards, 5.3 ypc, 7 TD) to get some carries as well, and hopefully Long has a couple of those guys out there at once and throws some misdirection and some jet sweeps at Clemson to keep them honest.

Clemson’s linebackers are pretty fast, solid tacklers in run support, so even if Williams, Jones Jr., and Armstrong get past that behemoth defensive line, they may not get much farther on most runs thanks to guys like Kendall Joseph (74 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 7 QBH), Tre Lamar (69 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 4 QBH, 1 INT), JD Davis (36 tackles, 5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 FF, 1 INT), and Chad Smith (31 tackles, 1 sack).

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Clemson vs Pittsburgh Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

What could be key, especially if the Clemson front seven effectively bottles up the Irish running game, is the short passing game to the ND backs. The Irish have found good success with this all year, especially against the USC Trojans in the season finale. The Irish were struggling to move the ball, and then began feasting on the Trojan defense by designing little passes to Williams and Jones Jr. out in space.

Especially if ND can catch Clemson linebackers blitzing or cheating to stop the run and then get the ball out to ND backs with some green around them, it could go a long way to finding a high-efficiency method of keeping the chains moving and not totally relying on passing to Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool, Chris Finke, and Alizé Mack. Jafar Armstrong could be key here as a running back who was converted from wide receiver — he is now actually at 100% and has the hands and speed to truly do some damage if the Tigers don’t contain him.

NCAA Football: Navy vs Notre Dame Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

In the passing game, the Irish have a shot to do a little more damage than they do on the ground. Clemson’s secondary and its pass defense in general are good, but at 18th in pass defense and 16th in pass efficiency defense, it’s a relative weakness that Ian Book (2,468 yards, 19 TD, 6 INT) could exploit with his accuracy (70.4% completion rate) and arm if he has enough time (“if he has enough time” being the operative phrase in that sentence).

If tackles Liam Eichenberg, Robert Hainsey, and the rest of the ND offensive line play the game of their lives and do a good job of staving off the pass rush of guys like Ferrell, Bryant, and Wilkins (or even a decent job will honestly be impressive and useful here), Book will have time to get set and find his receivers, who can definitely get open against a good, but not elite, Clemson secondary.

Miles Boykin (54 rec, 803 yards, 8 TD), Chase Claypool (48 rec, 631 yards, 4 TD), and Alizé Mack (34 rec, 349 yards, 3 TD) will all be key here, as their size and rapport with Book should allow them to make a number of key catches, especially over the middle, where Clemson has shown a little weakness this season. Chris Finke (47 rec, 547 yards, 2 TD) could also have a bunch of catches underneath as he uses his slippery nature and veteran smarts to find open spaces in the secondary for big first down grabs — much like Hunter Renfrow does for Clemson’s offense.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Clemson secondary is a relative weakness for the Tigers, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the #16 pass efficiency defense is somehow bad. Guys like Isaiah Simmons (75 tackles, 8 TFL, 4 PBU, 3 FF, 1 INT), Tanner Muse (53 tackes, 2 sacks, 2 INT, 4 PBU), K’Von Wallace (44 tackles, 3 PBU, 2 FF, 1 INT), AJ Terrell (43 tackles, 2 PBU, 1 FF, 2 INT), and Trayvon Mullen (25 tackles, 3 TFL, 3 PBU) are all fantastic athletes capable of making lots of big plays on the back-end, and they certainly won’t make it easy on Book and co., even if he does have time to throw.

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Clemson vs Pittsburgh Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Overall, this should be a truly intriguing matchup, as this Clemson defense is second to none nationally, even without Dexter Lawrence, and so it will be a real barometer of how good the ND offense and Chip Long can be to see how productive they can be against it.

Furthermore, for how good we all know the Notre Dame defense is, they will NOT be able to win this game by themselves, out on the field trying to stop the Clemson offense all game long. They will wear down and give up some points unless the Irish offense is able to sustain some drives and give them some breathers. The ND offense HAS to do its part, even if it will be a lesser part than it’s played most of the season.

Defensive Tiger to Watch

DE Clelin Ferrell

He’s been probably the best player on the Tigers’ defense all season, and if he’s able to continue his pass rushing prowess and wreak havoc in the Irish backfield, it’ll be tough for ND to get anything going offensively.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive Irish to Watch

LT Liam Eichenberg and RT Robert Hainsey

I think a major key for Notre Dame on offense is giving Ian Book time, and these two guys have been up and down all season in that regard. This is another level in terms of opponents they’ll be trying to keep out of the backfield, so their performances will go a long way to either enabling Book to make lots of big throws or allowing the Clemson defensive ends to tee off on him as he runs for his life.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams???

There’s not too much to talk about in terms of special teams in this one. Clemson is horrible in terms of special teams efficiency (125th in the country), and much of that stems from their bad punting game — this could be a big factor if both defenses are playing up to their statistical ranks, giving ND a field position advantage, but I don’t think the Irish can necessarily rely on that to win this.

Clemson’s kicker Greg Huegel has been fine, making all 68 of his extra point attempts and making 9 of his 13 field goal attempts this season. He and Justin Yoon seem similar in that they make the kicks they should make and miss some tougher ones.

Alright, Let’s Predict the Result of This One

Even with Lawrence out, I honestly don’t think the Irish will end up as the victors here, just because of the sheer amount of top-end talent and CFP experience Clemson has, not to mention because I think Dabo and Brent Venables and the rest of that Tigers staff know what they’re doing.

But, with all that said, I didn’t get here by predicting Notre Dame to lose to anyone, and have always relied on my gut more than my brain for these pointless predictions.

So, I think the Irish offense makes some moves tomorrow with passes to running backs coming out of the backfield and maybe a vertical threat we have seen very little of so far this year (Kevin Austin???), and the ND defense plays one of its best games of the year and shows the nation that Clemson and Alabama aren’t the only schools with nasty, fast, suffocating defenses. Clemson won’t be shut down or anything and will certainly get theirs, but I think the Irish pull it out down the stretch in the 4th quarter, and I will be in the stands with my friend Prison Mike going bananas.

Notre Dame 30, Clemson 27

Agree? Disagree? Chime in below in the comments to tell us your own predictions for the game and its happenings!!!!