By Jamie Uyeyama/Irish Sports Daily
It feels weird to say that Notre Dame finally got invited to the “big boy table” because 1) it’s Notre Dame and 2) it’s not like the Irish haven’t been on the fringe of this in recent years. Four out of the last five years they’ve looked like College Football Playoff contenders at certain points of the season, but this was the first time they actually followed through.
Their reward for an undefeated season is a Playoff berth. With that comes what will easily be their toughest test of the season as they face Clemson in Dallas on December 29th.
Everyone remembers the last time these two teams played back in 2015 when they had a tight game in a monsoon. Clemson won the game and ultimately made it to the Championship where they lost against Alabama. The Tigers won the whole thing the next year and this is their fourth straight year making it into the Playoff.
In every area, this is the best team the Irish will have faced this year.
They have the most talent throughout their roster. They have the best offense (7th in S&P+). They have the best defense (1st). They are ranked 2nd by the Playoff committee and are ranked 2nd in S&P+, trailing only Alabama.
There is a reason why the committee put Alabama and Clemson in a different category than everyone else, even a fellow unbeaten like Notre Dame. Clemson has an average margin of victory of over 30 points per game. No team has finished a game within 20 points of them since September.
They have been a dominant team.
Dominant, but there’s a catch…
They haven’t exactly played a difficult schedule.They deserve a ton of credit for taking care of business against weaker opponents, but unfortunately they have not been tested by good teams because they haven’t played many of them.
Their best wins according to the rankings are against Texas A&M (19th) and Syracuse (20th). Those were by a combined six points. (To be fair against Syracuse, Clemson had lost their starting quarterback in the first half of that game)
They have four wins against teams that are in the S&P+ top-50. A&M is 19th, Syracuse is 43rd, NC State is 30th, and South Carolina is 33rd.
Notre Dame (6th) is also the best team Clemson will have faced this season. The Irish have the best defense (4th) that the Tigers will have gone up against and it’s really not close. The second best is Boston College (28th).
Clemson has not dominated a team like Notre Dame because they haven’t played a team anywhere close to as good.
Playmakers on Offense
We have the next four weeks to dig deep into specifics, but we can start with examining Clemon’s personnel. This is a group on offense that is loaded with playmakers. The skill positions are stacked and it starts with the quarterback.
True freshman Trevor Lawrence is no ordinary first year player. There is no other freshman quarterback like him. It’s not just his arm talent (which is exceptional). He’s efficient and accurate.
It’s incredible that he is 19th in the country in pass efficiency and is 13th in QBR. Lawrence is rated better in that category than players like UCF’s McKenzie Milton, Oregon’s Justin Herbert, and Washington State’s Gardner Minshew.
The scariest part about Lawrence is that he’s been at his best in the red zone. He’s thrown 15 touchdowns to zero interceptions once they get inside the 20 yard line.
The four top receivers on the team are right up there with any group in the country. Tee Higgins (6’4” 215) and Justyn Ross (6’4” 215) are not only big, but they are legitimate deep threats. Higgins has double digit touchdown catches and Ross is averaging over 20 yards per reception.
Amari Rodgers and Hunter Renfrow are the smaller, high volume players who catch close to 80% of the targets thrown their way and are both clutch players on 3rd down.
Running back Travis Etienne is putting up video game numbers for them. He’s averaging 8.31 yards per carry and is a threat to break a huge run on any carry. He’s the star for them, but they have three other backs with touchdown runs of 64 yards or more.
Put those players together with a solid group up front (semi-finalists for the Joe Moore Award) and it’s not hard to see why they are 8th in rushing offense and 27th in passing offense according to S&P+.
After Lawrence took over the quarterback position on a full-time basis they’ve averaged 7.57 yards per play.
Elite Players on the D-line
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables always has a great defense. This is up there with the best he’s had, mostly because they are so loaded on the defensive line.
Defensive end Clelin Ferrell (10.5 sacks, 17.5 tackles for loss), 3-tech Christian Wilkins (13 TFLs), and nose tackle Dexter Lawrence (destroyer of double teams) could all end up as first round picks.
End Austin Bryant is a really good player as well and they have a second unit that could start for a lot of Power 5 programs. 5-star true freshman Xavier Thomas (8.5 TFLs) is already showing signs of being a difference maker.
Their defense is 4th in Havoc Rate and 1st in Defensive Line Havoc Rate. It’s not like they don’t have athletes all over the defense, but it’s absolutely the D-line that makes them so good.
They are good enough to only rush four and when they blitz it puts all of those guys in one on one situations. They’re 6th in the nation in sack rate.
Where Are The Weaknesses?
If you’re looking at overall statistical performance, it’s difficult to find them. A lot of this I will get into more with ways to potentially attack them with film posts in the coming weeks.
It is notable that they did give up 430 yards passing to Texas A&M and 510 yards passing to South Carolina. The pass rush is fantastic, but they have had breakdowns in the back seven.
Those are big numbers and if the Irish are going to win, they’ll have move the ball a lot through the air with the way Clemson has been against the run. They only allow 2.4 yards per carry (1st) and have not allowed a 100 yard rusher all season.
Overall Clemson has been a team that has thrived in almost every situation. They are 6th in finishing drives inside the 40 yard line on offense and 2nd at stopping drives inside their 40. They don’t give up many big plays on defense and have the athletes to produce them on offense.
This will be the best team Notre Dame has faced since…Clemson back in 2015. The Irish might not have Jaylon Smith or Will Fuller, but this 2018 Notre Dame team is better than the 2015 version. This game should be a really good matchup between two very good football teams.