While Clemson and Notre Dame don’t play for another three weeks in the 83rd Cotton Bowl Kickoff Classic, it did not stop the guys at ESPN from talking about the College Football Playoff semifinal game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas on Dec. 29.
The second-ranked Tigers are considered by Las Vegas as an 11.5-point favorite over No. 3 Notre Dame heading into the game, but the college football analysts at ESPN think that line might be a little too high.
Desmond Howard says Clemson’s defense will have its hands full with Notre Dame’s offense, especially when it comes to defending Irish quarterback Ian Book.
The Irish (12-0) are averaging 33.8 points and 456.1 yards per game. Book, who did not become the starter until Week 4 of the season, has thrown for 2,468 yards, while completing 70.8 percent of his passes.
“Coach (Brian) Kelly did a great job when he made Ian Book his starting quarterback,” Howard said on College GameDay Saturday. “To me, it just opened up the whole offense. Ian Book is an accomplished passer.”
Book is averaging 224.4 yards per game through the air, while as a team Notre Dame is averaging 265.6 yards. Book has thrown 19 touchdowns to just six interceptions in the 11 games he has played in.
“Ian Book keeps his eyes downfield and extends plays,” Howard said. “He is probably one of the more talented quarterbacks that Clemson’s defense has seen the whole year. So, this is going to be a great matchup between Notre Dame’s offense against Clemson’s defense.”
Speaking of Clemson’s defense, the Tigers are allowing just 276.8 yards per game and rank in the top 10 nationally in almost every defensive category, including first in yards per carry at 2.4. Clemson has not allowed an opposing running back to go over 100 yards on the ground all year.
Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams is averaging 117.6 yards per game and has scored 12 touchdowns. He is averaging 6.6 yards per carry.
Analyst David Pollack says the running game opened up for the Irish after Book became the full-time starter at quarterback.
“When you watched Notre Dame this year, it has changed so much. This was a running team with a running quarterback in Brandon Wimbush and now you see a guy who is a point guard,” Pollack said. “He spreads the ball around. Nobody throws it better to the sidelines. Nobody attacks the sideline better than Ian Book.”
Book’s number one target is wide receiver Miles Boykin, who has hauled in 54 passes for 803 yards and eight touchdowns. He is averaging 14.6 yards per catch. Chase Claypool has 48 receptions for 631 yards and four scores, while Chris Finke, Notre Dame’s Hunter Renfrow, has 47 catches for 547 yards and two touchdowns.
“We brag a lot about Clemson’s front four, and rightfully so, but their safety play, they better play great in pass defense because otherwise (Notre Dame) can beat you with the run and with the throw. Clemson’s defense is great, but that secondary better show up and play,” Pollack said.