Well folks, we’ve finally made it. It’s November, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team has played 8 games, and the undefeated, #4 Clemson Tigers are rolling into town to take on our weird, inconsistent, unpredictable ND squad on Saturday evening on what’s supposed to be a chilly and wet night.
Of course, the Irish are fresh off a convincing road win against the #20 Syracuse Orange, topping them by 17 in a fine finish to a strange October performance by Marcus Freeman’s team.
Now, their toughest test since opening day comes marching into Notre Dame Stadium, with Dabo and the boys looking to avenge the result of the last time these two teams squared off in South Bend.
This is a completely different team from the Clemson the Irish saw twice in 2020, though, and thus it was crucial for us to reach out to our Clemson sister site here at SB Nation, Shakin The Southland, in order to get the skinny on this Tigers team. Luckily, we were able to get STS Editor Alex Craft to answer all of our questions, from the serious and insightful to the vaguely political and Nickelodeon-themed.
Alex provided some top-notch responses to help prepare us for this match-up, and so I won’t delay us any longer in diving into all that fantastic knowledge. Let’s do this!
1. It says a lot about Dabo Swinney’s program the last ~8 years that 2021 felt like a major down year for the Tigers at 10-3 and losing both coordinators to head coaching jobs. What happened last season and do you see that as a one-year anomaly? What do you think this 2022 team’s ceiling is?
STS: Whether 2021 was an anomaly or not is the great overarching question at the center of any debate around Clemson’s level of playoff worthiness. Unsurprisingly, the answers vary between those closer to the program and those watching from afar.
Largely, Clemson has improved tremendously from 2021 and its perfect storm for injuries, inexperience, and stale scheme resulting in a mind-blowing drop off for the offense. It changed the national perception of the program alarmingly quickly and this 2022 team finds itself fighting against not just a changed perception, but the weakness of the ACC and “Dabo without his savior coordinators” to boot. But I’m far less concerned about the new coordinators than I am the growing talent gap between Clemson and their competition at the top of the sport when I look at Clemson’s place among them.
Fans and writers who cover the program saw the issues last year and how far things have come this year with more experience, health, and a couple of new cooks in the offensive kitchen. National or ummm, conference network-specific pundits largely see neither, at least not in the same detail. Personally, Clemson’s status – meaning are they still elite and 2021 was an anomaly or not – is a question I struggle to answer not only because it’s nuanced, but because the answer varies by your own expectation.
This offseason I thought 2021 was perhaps the beginning of Clemson’s reversion to the mean, if you will; i.e., no longer a top 3 program thanks to an unsustainable recruiting hit rate (offering so few recruits and banking on your talent evaluations/development to punch at a national championship level with merely top 10 roster talent) and our primary recruiting rivals (Bama, UGA, Ohio State) raking in more talent than ever. Oddly though, Clemson’s composite roster talent is better in the last couple of years than it was in 2016-2018, so that feeling wasn’t necessarily backed up by the data.
Clemson is still top 5 in the talent composite, but the gap between Bama, UGA, and Ohio State has grown to a level I don’t think Clemson can overcome without that unrealistic hit rate or Trevor Lawrence. They may only be a top 6 program, in Tier 1B but not 1A, instead of top 3 now and that’s ok! Certainly good enough to make an expanded playoff in a fairly soft conference with regularity.
2022’s improvement has shown me more that 2021 was an anomaly though and not a marked downward trend, but it doesn’t mean all the warts are gone or Clemson’s about to win a national title in the next year or two. The offense simply isn’t good enough on the perimeter and Clemson isn’t out-scheming anyone like they did earlier in this run. The ceiling in my view is a ~20 point loss in the Playoff Semifinal to Ohio State, UGA, or Bama. OR a ~10 point loss to Michigan. I’d take Clemson over TCU and Tennessee if Clemson lucked into those matchups, but there’s a clear gap between the three teams I keep bringing up and where Clemson is today. If 13-1 is a drop-off though, sign me right up for it.
2. How do the Clemson faithful feel about D.J. Uiagalelei as the starting QB? It sounds like he was benched against Syracuse but will remain QB1 — do you think that makes the most sense for this team, or are the Tigers better off potentially handing the reins to Cade Klubnik and dealing with his freshman growing pains now in order to set up the offense for long-term success?
STS: DJ is unquestionably the better QB at this point and it isn’t remotely close. Klubnik threw only four passes in that comeback and none of them were encouraging; he very nearly had two turnovers himself. In fact I hoped DJ would come back in after Clemson took the lead late against Syracuse through its running backs and Syracuse penalties. Dabo compared it to pulling a starting pitcher in favor of a reliever in baseball. I don’t really think the comparison translates to football, but it’s a fair metaphor to explain the nature of the switch.
No one seriously believes Klubnik should be the starter at this point (or even next season if DJ returns) based on what we’ve seen so far and it really is as simple as DJ just needed a reset of sorts after a day which could’ve torpedoed his confidence.
Syracuse aside, he’s been remarkably steady and turnover-averse, proving equally adept at carrying the team with one Heisman-discussion-level performance (seriously, look at the Wake Forest game) and high-level “game management” in the NC State and FSU games. He’s QB1 by miles and that won’t change as long as he’s here. In my view he’s met every test this year, including handling the benching two weeks ago.
3. Will Shipley is a kid that ND wanted BAD in recruiting, and in less than 2 seasons he’s already shown why he was such a highly-ranked and highly-sought-after prospect. What does he do best, and does he have any real weaknesses to his game? Also, besides Shipley, who else on the Clemson offense should Irish fans be aware/afraid of heading into Saturday night?
STS: Shipley is the best and most important player on offense outside of left tackle Jordan McFadden. Clemson’s duly at its best when Shipley gets the ball 20+ times, and in the past two games he’s finally overcome the same underutilized 12-15 touch per game fate as Travis Etienne. Against FSU he was a terror out of the backfield on swings before the FSU defense began to buckle in the middle, and against Syracuse he was churning through their small front all game. He and backup Phil Mafah brought Clemson back against Syracuse, not the backup QB.
His best trait in my view is his short space power. The quickness with which he plants a foot and gets low is remarkable and would be the best we’ve seen here in years if not for Etienne. He isn’t necessarily a burner or a bruiser, but his vision and difficulty to bring down before finding a hole finds him consistent yards even when there’s little room to be found.
His weakness to this point is his pass protection. Phenomenal effort but often misses blocks when tasked with protection, particularly (and understandably) when carrying out any sort of run action. Luckily the Clemson offensive line has protected extremely well and allowed very few sacks, and DJ has moved the pocket well when there has been a leak.
I’d like to see Shipley finish more long runs too; the staff tells us he wins every sprint in practice but until the long go-ahead TD against Syracuse, every time he’s broken free he’s lost his balance (it’s that forward lean I guess) and been caught from behind just when you think he’s clear to the end zone.
4. Per usual, the Clemson defense is full of elite guys — which position groups are strongest (and who are the key guys there), and what weaknesses, if any, could Tommy Rees potentially exploit to find some success offensively on Saturday?
STS: I don’t think you’ll be surprised to read the strength of the defense (and team) is the defensive line. It is disgustingly deep, though in fairness hasn’t been consistently dominant. Part of that is what seems to be the ACC’s decision to not call holding on opposing offensive lines in an effort to level the matchup, and part of it is due to a couple of injuries. But the group has admitted they haven’t consistently played to the 2018 standard they professed to match. I look for that to change this weekend though with a bye week behind them and a big offensive line to challenge them.
The best player is 1-tech/nose Tyler Davis. Clemson is elite when he’s on the field, full stop. Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy get the top-10 draft headlines and KJ Murphy has met the 5 star pedigree now in his 5th year, but Davis is the best player and most important player. Bresee and Xavier Thomas are finally rounding into health now, which is delightfully scary given the amount of time they’ve each already missed this year.
The most obvious weakness is found at cornerback, but there’s been improvement there since an all-time stinker against Wake. Sheridan Jones has returned from injury there, and while he isn’t the most talented corner, he has shored up the position and put some unready freshmen back on the bench.
A sneaky, surprising weakness though has been linebacker run fits. This is the most athletic linebacker group Clemson has ever had, but it hasn’t been a seamless transition from Sam/Edge rusher to Will for an athletic freak like Trenton Simpson. FSU in particular mauled Clemson with outside zone and stretch runs, largely because of poor gap integrity at linebacker. Clemson “reinstalled” run fits during its bye this week, so I’m watching this more closely than the secondary given what Notre Dame can (and can’t) do on offense.
5. FAN QUESTION:
Who is not playing on the Clemson team against ND?— Cheryl Russo (@CherylR01091480) October 30, 2022
Editor’s Note Follow-Up: along with which guys might not play, are there any key players returning for this game following the bye week?
STS: To my knowledge, no one should be out of this game for the Tigers except backup running back Kobe Pace with a high ankle sprain. If there are any scratches, we won’t know until about 2 hours before kickoff on Saturday when beat writers get the scoop ahead of the depth chart/availability report from the AD.
Sam linebacker Barrett Carter missed Syracuse with a concussion suffered in practice and we didn’t know until that Saturday morning. His absence really cost Clemson in that shaky first half when Syracuse QB Garrett Shrader ran at ease, since Carter is the new Isaiah Simmons and never comes off the field. Though Tyler Davis is my MVP, Carter’s found the most ACC DPOY buzz over the first half of the season. He’s back this weekend.
6. FAN QUESTION:
Since ND plays better on the road, can ND come to Clemson next week and then Clemson can come to ND next year.. we will just switch this year and next year?— Nathan Reynolds (@Enforcers2117) October 30, 2022
STS: I’m down, if there’s one gripe I have in Clemson’s 38-game home winning streak, it’s the lack of marquee home games. We haven’t hosted you since 2015 nor South Carolina since 2018. Main ACC rivals FSU and Georgia Tech haven’t been good in years. Even the 2019 headliner against Texas A&M was a dull affair in 98-degree heat.
We got ourselves good and hyped for NC State last month and the atmosphere definitely delivered, but it’s still just NC State. Can’t wait for y’all to come back, hopefully with better weather this time.
7. FAN QUESTION:
On a scale of 1-lol how worried is Dabo about Drew Pyne— matthew (@MatthewTNardi) October 31, 2022
8. FAN QUESTION:
If nd beats Clemson again will DJ officially change his last name to uhohihavetoplayinsouthbend?— Knute Rockne (@Rocknes_Ghost) October 30, 2022
STS: He had a much worse time at Pitt last year, but that doesn’t roll of the tongue quite as well as yours so sure.
9. FAN QUESTION:
Which does Dabo hate more: Losing or organized labor?— Ryan Kennedy (@RyanKWrites) October 30, 2022
STS: Oh man, this question made me belly laugh and cry all at once.
I don’t think Dabo is quite the reactionary his own comments make him seem. I hold no illusions about where his own politics almost certainly lie, but many comments regarding NIL, transfers, and player empowerment were misconstrued to the point of being wrong or taken without full context to explain tweaks he favors.
Still, he’s had more than a few foot-in-mouth comments (thankfully far fewer in the past year or so) and I still hold my breath anytime someone comes up to him with a mic. Every time.
I probably shouldn’t say anything else and reveal my own leanings more than a few tweets and likes already do…but I can assure you he certainly hates losing more!
10. In 2015 after beating ND in a classic in a rainstorm, Dabo made famous the phrase “bring your own guts.” If you could choose 5 players from this Clemson team to compete on the Nickelodeon show GUTS, whom would you choose and why?
Also, if Dabo and Marcus Freeman were to race to the top of the Aggro Crag, who would win?
STS: I have no idea what this show is so when I looked it up I feared I was going to feel ancient for not knowing a new Nickelodeon show. Turns out I feel much younger now, thanks.
Trenton Simpson, Barrett Carter, Will Shipley, Bryan Bresee, and Antonio Williams.
Freeman without a sweat, dude has youth and fitness on his side. I think we all know Dabo wins any sort of race DOWN a hill though don’t we – goofily wide hips and plenty of practice.
11. Alright, time to get down to it: what’s your prediction for this game? Who wins, what’s the final score, and give your reasoning why.
STS: I like Clemson by 10-17 points, depending on how ugly this game is. Clemson’s had a tendency to play up or down to its opponents for at least half the game more often than not this year, but weirdly I can’t decide if that’s up or down for this game. Either way, the uglier, the better Notre Dame’s chances.
Both teams have solid rush attacks and steady tight ends. I like Clemson’s run defense and QB/WRs better though, and they’ll be the difference in a game which probably won’t sniff half the points we saw in our last South Bend meeting.
Clemson’s not explosive but they’re shockingly efficient, and on this side of the bye week I think we’ll see the Clemson defense begin to live up to preseason expectations.
I’ll take Clemson something like 27-13.
Alright y’all, I wanna give a massive shout-out to Alex for his responses, as they were super thoughtful, reasonable, and insightful in terms of how Clemson fans see their current team and the trajectory of their program right now. I also appreciate his willingness to do some research on old Nickelodeon shows that clearly show my age — that was very much appreciated.
I encourage you all to head over to Shakin The Southland ASAP in order to check out all the great content they’ve got over there and to see what they’re thinking about this match-up as we approach Saturday night. They do some excellent work and it’s always fun to see what a top-5 opponent’s writers and commenters think of an underperforming Irish squad.
Additionally, I implore you all to go follow both the STS site as well as Alex on Twitter for any late-breaking news and notes and just some great tweets in general to improve your college football-related Twitter experience.
That’s it for this week — as always, GO IRISH, BEAT TIGERS!!!!!