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Notre Dame Football Recruiting: The difference between the Irish and Clemson

Big ones and little ones

It’s hard to have any real discussion about football recruiting for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish without bringing up the Ohio State Buckeyes, Alabama Crimson, Tide, and the Clemson Tigers. While there are other top programs that Irish fans love to compare Notre Dame to — those four have consistently dominated the discussion.

“How can Notre Dame ever truly compete for a national championship without top 5 recruiting classes like those guys?”

The conversation eventually steers right into Clemson for obvious reasons. Clemson is THE college program right now — regardless of the national championship results last year. Clemson’s rise as a national power can directly be traced back to October 3, 2015 and it’s a big reason why Notre Dame fans are unable to shake the Tigers from their minds.

So we turn to recruiting, and we all fix our eyes on Brian Kelly’s new goal of top 5 recruiting classes. It has to be all of those top 5 recruiting classes that Clemson has pulled in over the last 8 years — right? That’s part of the secret sauce and why recruiting analysts and college football analysts talk about Clemson as a recruiting juggernaut — right?

Well, not really.

Clemson has signed just one top 5 recruiting class since 2012 — the exact same as Notre Dame — although Clemson is well on their way to another top 5 finish in the 2021 class.

If you look at that chart though, it’s a bit frustrating to see how well Clemson has done over the last 5 years with 5 playoff berths, 4 national championship games, and 2 titles. Notre Dame is right with Clemson in terms of class rankings, and yet they have just one playoff appearance — a brutal 30-3 dismantling of a 12-0 Irish team.

I have a lot of different theories about why Clemson has risen to the heights that they have, but the simplest and most honest is this:

  • Elite quarterback play
  • Elite skill position players

The Tigers offensive line, for example, is rarely as talented as Notre Dame’s or the top programs in the SEC and Big 10 — and yet here they are. That last sentence has been the cause for many trips down different rabbit holes over the last few years, and I don’t want to get too nuts here, but it had to be said.

An easier, shorter, and more powerful statement is a list consisting of two names:

Over the last 9 recruiting cycles, Notre Dame’s average class ranking is 12.6 and Clemson’s is 11.8. It’s so ridiculously close and yet the programs have such a different feel to them — mostly because of the difference in those recruiting classes. Clemson’s Top 150 talent cupboard is much more stocked than Notre Dame’s and there’s no slight difference there.

Still, even with that elite talent disparity, I have convinced myself that if DeShone Kizer would have returned to Notre Dame in 2017, the Irish go undefeated in the regular season with a good chance to make some good noise in the playoffs.

Again... quarterback play.

Is Ian Book good enough in his 5th year at Notre Dame to help the Irish conquer a team like Clemson. If there is a college football season in 2020, the November matchup in South Bend would be the opportune time to take care of that nasty bit of business.

Perhaps, like in Clemson’s case in 2015, the 2020 game will help increase their inventory of top 150 talent.

The highly publicized recruitment of 5-Star running back Will Shipley — and his subsequent commitment to Clemson — has only highlighted the disparity in top 150 talent between the two programs. However, there is hope. If the biggest reason really is elite quarterback play, Notre Dame has a 5-Star signal caller in Tyler Buchner committed to the 2021 class.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the hunt for a top 5 recruiting class, and thanks to Brian Kelly’s statement in December it’s pretty much all we have been focused on for the 2021 cycle. But if you look at what Clemson has done during this incredible run, class recruiting ranking isn’t nearly as important as landing top 150 talent — and developing the rest of them.

And just so no one can throw it back in my face, I’ll say this as well... Dabo Swinney is a good coach.

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