WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) vs. No. 2 Clemson (13-0)
WHAT: The 83rd Cotton Bowl Classic (and the game’s second College Football Playoff Semifinal)
WHEN: 4:00 p.m. ET on ESPN
WHERE: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
THE SKINNY: The Echoes. The Guts. The Playoff.
Clemson finds themselves right back in another semifinal to nobody’s surprise after dominating from just about start to finish this season. The Tigers check off just about every box you’re looking for, ranking in the top five in both scoring offense and scoring defense in 2018 and winning all but two of their games by 20 or more points. You can pick your poison on offense as tailback Travis Etienne averages over eight yards a carry while wideouts like Tee Higgins can stretch the field with big play after big play. Old reliable Hunter Renfrow is also a frequent target for freshman QB Trevor Lawrence, who has been stellar since taking over for Kelly Bryant four games into the season and has more than lived up to his billing as the top player in the class of 2018.
Dabo Swinney’s squad is pretty impressive on defense too. While most of the conversation leading up to the game has surrounded the suspension of defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence due to a failed drug test, Clemson is still loaded up front with potential first rounders like Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins. The Tigers only give up 13.7 points per game and sport quite the rotation at every level of their defense, from sideline-to-sideline guys like linebacker Tre Lamar to a lockdown defender in corner Trayvon Mullen.
Going up against all that is yet another undefeated Notre Dame squad who has passed every test this year with flying colors. While some might have visions of the 2012 group getting blasted by Alabama in the BCS title game, head coach Brian Kelly will be the first to tell you that this year’s edition of the Irish is a lot better on both sides of the ball and more than capable of going toe-to-toe with anybody. One reason why has been the play of quarterback Ian Book, himself a signal-caller who took over mid-year and somebody who can beat you over the top with his arm or on the ground scrambling if needed. Playing behind an excellent offensive line, he forms a pretty good tandem in the backfield with either running back Dexter Williams or Jafar Armstrong, both of whom can turn a little space into a huge gain.
ND’s defense is no slouch either, ranking No. 4 in S&P+ and rolling out veterans like DT Jerry Tillery in the middle and Thorpe Award finalist Julian Love on the back end. The entire group doesn’t give up many big plays and have a good enough two-deep to throw a lot of different looks, players and coverages out there to stymie just about any attack.
Bottle it all up and you have the ingredients for a potentially epic semifinal matchup between two programs who are all too familiar with each other. The biggest key to the ball game will be which offense can more consistently move the chains and convert scoring opportunities, which has typically been the Tigers this season. The Irish will certainly be able to make things interesting and keep it close but eventually the ACC champs pull away and book their ticket to yet another title game.
THE PICK: Clemson 27, Notre Dame 17
And then there were two.
Seeing the Justin Fields writing on the wall, Tate Martell transferred from Ohio State in mid-January and ultimately landed at Miami. Three months later, another OSU signal-caller, Matthew Baldwin, confirmed on Twitter Thursday night that he too has decided to take his leave of the Buckeyes and place his name into the NCAA transfer database.
“[S]pring was a tough time for me personally. My family and I have prayed and talked a lot about where I belong and what is best for me,” Baldwin wrote as part of a very classy Twitter post revealing his decision. “In the end, we feel like it’d be better for me to step away from Ohio State.”
A four-star member of OSU’s 2018 recruiting class, Baldwin was rated as the No. 12 pro-style quarterback in the country coming out of high school in Austin, Texas. Baldwin didn’t play a down for the Buckeyes as he continued his rehab from an ACL injury he suffered late in his high school career at Lake Travis.
With the twin departures of Baldwin and Martell, OSU is now down to two scholarship quarterbacks — the Georgia transfer Fields (HERE) and West Virginia transfer Chris Chugunov (HERE). Fields was widely expected to be the Buckeyes’ starter under center in the 2019 opener; Baldwin’s decision ensures that, barring injury, that will indeed be the case.
A week and a half after word broke Luke Jones was intending to leave Notre Dame comes the announcement Jones is going to be playing closer to home. The Arkansas native announced with a message on Twitter he is coming home to play for the Arkansas Razorbacks.
“I would like to thank the University of Note Dame for giving me the opportunity to pursue my dream of playing college football,” Jones said in a brief message on his Twitter account. “However, I have decided to transfer and play football for the University of Arkansas. I will be enrolling in the summer and am excited for this new chapter in my life!”
Jones spent a brief moment with the Notre Dame program as he was a member of the Class of 2018 in South Bend. Prior to committing to the Fighting Irish, Jones had been committed to the Arkansas football program in his recruiting process, but Notre Dame emerged victorious in the recruiting game during a coaching change with the Razorbacks.
Jones will be required to sit out the 2019 season under standard NCAA transfer rules, although those seem to be more like guidelines these days, so we’ll wait to see if there is a chance Jones gets to jump into the mix in the offensive line for the Razorbacks this fall.
Tight end Tyler Sear is hopping on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and heading from one metropolitan corner of the state to the next. Sear announced on his Twitter account on Thursday he is transferring from Pitt to Temple.
The Class of 2017 recruit of the Panthers left the program last October for what was simply described as personal reasons. It was unknown if the leave of absence was a short-term or long-term plan as the decisions about the status were being kept close to the vest within the Pitt program.
Sear did battle some injury concerns during his time at Pitt that prevented him from potentially reaching his full potential for the Panthers. He caught two passes for nine yards last season prior to his stepping away from the team.
Perhaps a clean slate with a new program will do Sear good as he steps in to try contributing with the Owls in the AAC. Sear will have to sit out the 2019 season due to standard NCAA transfer rules, unless an exception is granted by the NCAA. It is unknown if a waiver will be filed by Sear and Temple for immediate eligibility.
Sear has not used a redshirt year yet so he could burn that in 2019 while waiting to get back on the field if he is forced to sit out the 2019 season. That ould leave Sear with two years of eligibility remaining beginning with the 2020 season.
Ass another name to the growing list of players entering the transfer portal. This time it is Michigan cornerback Myles Sims. According to a report from 247 Sports, the former four-star prospect in Michigan’s Class of 2018 is evaluating his options.
Any player who adds his name to the transfer portal is allowed to make contact with potential programs of interest, but it does not automatically mean that player is gone for god. Sims will have the option of pulling his name out of the portal in the event he decides to stay in Ann Arbor. How quickly Sims will make any decision one way or the other remains to be seen.
Sims did not see the field last season for Michigan so he can use the 2018 season as his redshirt year. That gives the former four-star recruit four years of eligibility remaining, although he will likely have to burn one year of eligibility by sitting out the upcoming 2019 season.
Standard NCAA transfer rules require a player to sit out a full season before being ruled eligible to play again, although exceptions have been made a bit more frequently over the past year. Whether or not Sims will have the chance to play right away this fall will have to wait to be determined when he decides what his plans will be moving forward.