Perhaps the biggest matchup to watch in the Cotton Bowl will be Clemson’s offensive line vs. Notre Dame’s defensive front.
On paper at least, the Tigers seem to have the edge. Led by All-American left tackle Mitch Hyatt, Clemson is perhaps having its best season up front since the Danny Ford days.
Clemson ranks 10th nationally and second in the ACC at running the football, averaging 259.8 yards per game, the best season average since 1988. The Tigers need just 93 yards against Notre Dame to set the all-time record for rushing yards in a season, beating the mark set by the 1978 team.
The impressive numbers don’t end there, Clemson has rushed for 300 or more yards five times this season, tying the 1978 team for the all-time mark. The Tigers 6.8 yards per carry average leads the nation.
When it comes to pass protection, the Tigers have allowed just 14 sacks, including just two in the last six games. Clemson is tied for 14th nationally in the fewest sacks allowed.
How Notre Dame matches up with Clemson’s offensive line will go a long way in deciding who will win the Cotton Bowl and advances to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game on Jan. 7.
The Irish does have some really good players on the defensive line. They are led by All-American defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, who was a dominate force in the middle of that defensive front this season.
Tillery leads Notre Dame with eight sacks and is second on the team with 10.5 tackles for loss. He has also forced three fumbles and blocked one kick. On the outside, defensive ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem combined for 11.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
The Irish like to play coverage mostly and relies on its defensive front to create pressure, which it has done a pretty good job with. Of Notre Dame’s 31 sacks, 19.5 has come from Tillery, Okwara and Kareem.
However, the Irish are not deep up front or on defense as a whole and Clemson will have an opportunity to wear them down with their fast-pace, up-tempo style of play.
It also doesn’t hurt that Clemson rotates two and sometimes three deep on its offensive line.
Because it relies just on its defensive front, Notre Dame has allowed 133.5 rushing yards a game, which ranks 33rd nationally. Their 3.7 yards allowed per carry average also ranks 33rd nationally.
The Irish’s defensive line averages a No. 60 ranking in the S&P’s average defensive line rankings and is no better than 29th in any category. For comparison, Clemson’s defensive line has a No. 5 average, the best in the country, and is ranked No. 1 in four of the nine categories the S&P measures.
Clemson’s worst metric ranking is No. 18 on the defensive line.
Notre Dame’s defense does not make many plays behind the line of scrimmage, which does not bode well for the Irish in this matchup if it can’t get pressure on quarterback Trevor Lawrence or create havoc in the backfield.
Notre Dame has just 31 sacks this year and 73 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. To compare that to some of the other defenses the Tigers have faced, four teams—Syracuse, NC State, Boston College and Texas A&M—have more sacks than Notre Dame this season.
Also, eight of Clemson’s opponents this year—Syracuse, NC State, BC, A&M, Wake Forest, Duke, South Carolina and Pitt—have recorded more tackles for loss than Notre Dame’s defense.
The bend, but don’t break philosophy for the Irish has worked well this season as they are allowing 17.3 points per game, ninth best in the country. However, most teams they have faced have not been as balanced as Clemson on offense. The Tigers have had a large amount of success both running and passing the ball, especially when it gets into the red zone.
Clemson has converted 60 of its 66 red zone opportunities (91.0 percent) into points, tied for 11th nationally. Of those 66 opportunities, 52 are touchdowns (79.0 percent), which leads the country.
In case you are wondering, Notre Dame’s red zone defense ranks 31st nationally at 79 percent. However, it has allowed just 18 touchdowns in 33 attempts from its opponents, which ranks 17th nationally at 55.0 percent.